WASHINGTON – Nearly a dozen Republican senators now support the "border surge" provision in the immigration plan, potentially giving the measure the robust backing authors hoped for as it heads to a crucial vote Monday even as the price tag to secure the border with Mexico swelled to $46 billion.
The beefed-up border security amendment was the trade-off that the architects of a broader immigration overhaul determined was needed to gain GOP support for the legislation’s main element, a 13-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country without legal status.
Most of the 54 Democrats and independents are likely to vote for the amendment to increase security on the Southern border, which would dramatically change life along the boundary with Mexico. The plan includes 24-hour unarmed drone patrols and twice as many Border Patrol officers.
The amendment to the bill is expected to cross the 60-vote threshold to pass.
“Let’s face it, the debate around this issue is mostly around immigrants that come from south of the border,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who helped draft the compromise. “They work in people’s homes, they care for people’s children, they serve people’s meals, they build our homes and buildings.… I see hard-working people who are here, striving for the same thing that all of us want, that we want our kids to want … and I think it’s time to deal with it.”
Passage of the amendment would clear the way for a final Senate vote on the broader overhaul by the end of next week. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has pushed for a deal that would attract as many as 70 votes to give the bill momentum as it heads to the House, where the Republican majority has not been interested in providing a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country without legal status.
“We’re picking up more supporters every day,” Schumer said.
The compromise was a hard-fought agreement that left all sides grumbling, even as it incorporated several other provisions senators wanted to include in the immigration overhaul.
Tax measures proposed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) were added to draw his support. One would require immigrants to pay five years of back taxes before being allowed to transfer to permanent legal status. Another would prevent immigrants who have been paying into Social Security under false identification to draw those benefits at retirement.
“Making these immigrants meet the same obligations that Americans have to live up to just makes sense,” Hatch said in a statement announcing that he would co-sponsor the amendment.
Liberal senators have been uneasy with the “border surge” strategy, and civil libertarians warned of a virtual militarization of the border with Mexico.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, has objected to allowing an influx of foreign guest workers at a time when the nation’s unemployment rate remains high. His proposal for a $1.5-billion youth jobs program was included in the amendment.
“It is absolutely imperative that we create millions of decent-paying jobs in our country,” Sanders said in a statement.
The 1,119-page amendment filed by Corker and Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) on Friday establishes five border security triggers that must be met before immigrants can transition to permanent legal status with green cards. If those triggers are met, immigrants could make that transition after working for 10 years, paying fines and fees, and learning English. After 13 years, they could gain citizenship.
Among the triggers are the hiring of nearly 20,000 more Border Patrol officers, the completion of 700 miles of border fence, a system that requires employers to verify the legal status of all new hires and an exit system at all major airports to help track those who stay on expired visas. Fulfillment of a wish-list of items from the Border Patrol, including new technology, was also included.
The amendment would require unarmed surveillance drones to be airborne 24 hours a day, seven days a week on the Southern border. The number of drone pilots and crew would double to 160. Under the current U.S. Customs and Border Protection program, drones have been flying 12-hour shifts for five days a week because of limited personnel and funding.
The measure provides $30 billion for the new Border Patrol agents, with a requirement that the agency actively recruit veterans and reservists for the jobs. It also includes a student loan repayment program for new hires who commit to working on the border for least three years.
Six Vader radar systems would be deployed on the Southern border, up from one now in use, expanding the reach of the war zone surveillance technology.
The costs, which have already grown from earlier estimates, will be fully paid by the new taxes and fees on immigrants and their employers, drawing on a portion of the net $197 billion in revenue the legislation is expected to produce in the first 10 years.
Critics say the compromise simply throws money at the problem of illegal border crossings.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) urged opposition to what he called “amnesty” in an email solicitation to his supporters.
“Our side is fully charged for battle,” wrote Jim Robb, a vice president at NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for keeping immigration low, in a fundraising appeal.
[For the record, June 22, 2013, 2 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said that nearly a dozen Republican senators supported the immigration plan. Those senators support the "border surge" provision of the plan.]