A bipartisan group of senators agreed on a strengthened border-security plan in an effort to draw Republican support for the most significant revision of U.S. immigration law in a generation.
The plan, described on the Senate floor today by Republican Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota, would double the U.S. Border Patrol’s size by adding 20,000 agents and would require 700 miles of fencing at the U.S.-Mexico border. It would provide additional unmanned aerial drones to help police the border.
“It’s solved the riddle of how we deal with border security,” said New York Senator Charles Schumer, a Democratic co-sponsor of the bill. “I think it’s a breakthrough, and I’m optimistic it can help us get a large number of votes on both sides of the aisle.”
The Senate is in its second week of debate on immigration legislation that seeks to balance Democrats’ goal of a path to citizenship for about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. with Republicans’ demand for stricter border security. Senate Democratic leaders want to pass a bill before July 4. The last major revision of immigration law was in 1986.
South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican co-sponsor of the bill, said the bipartisan proposal would require the Department of Homeland Security to certify that the additional border-security resources were in place before undocumented immigrants could receive permanent legal status.
All employers would have to be using an E-verify system to check workers’ legal status, and all airports and seaports would have to use a visa entry and exit system.
“We believe all of this can be done in 10 years,” Graham told reporters. In that case, it wouldn’t delay the Senate bill’s plan to allow undocumented immigrants to begin receiving permanent legal status in 10 years.
The compromise drew praise from Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican co-sponsor of the Senate bill who had previously said he wouldn’t support it without more stringent border control.
“What this amendment reflects is what we know will work,” Rubio said on the Senate floor. “We know that adding border patrol agents, doubling the size of the border force, will work.”
Arizona Senator John McCain, another Republican co-sponsor, said the provision “that addresses the concerns of many Republicans.” He said a “significant” number of Republicans, including all four in the bipartisan negotiating group, agreed to support the plan.
Corker said the proposal “brings on at least 15 Republicans, and I think momentum is building.”
Earlier today, the Senate defeated a border-security proposal by Texas Republican John Cornyn that Democrats and some Republicans said would have scuttled bipartisan support for the legislation. His plan, rejected 54-43, would have required the government to show it was apprehending 90 percent of the people illegally crossing the border from Mexico before undocumented immigrants could gain permanent legal residency. Cornyn said on the Senate floor that he was reserving judgment on today’s bipartisan proposal until he could review the details. Still, he said doubling the number of border-security agents would improve the bill.
“That’s a substantial movement in terms of boots on the ground,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing the language that’s being proposed.”
Still, Republican Senators Charles Grassley of Iowa, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Ted Cruz of Texas, David Vitter of Louisiana and Mike Lee of Utah said the compromise proposal wouldn’t do enough to ensure the border is secure.
Vitter told reporters that the compromise amendment was designed “to pass the bill, not to fix the bill.”
“I think this is an attempt to pull out of the fire a bill that has been weakening,” Sessions said.
As originally proposed, the Senate immigration bill, S. 744, would allow undocumented immigrants to gain permanent residency, known as a green card, when the government has a “substantially operational” plan for achieving a 90 percent apprehension rate at the border.
Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, praised the new border-security proposal and said he would be prepared to vote for the broader immigration plan if the proposal is adopted. He was one of 15 senators, all Republicans, who voted on June 11 against taking up the bill.
“This bipartisan compromise will restore the people’s trust in our ability to control the border and bring 525,000 people in Illinois out of the shadows,” Kirk said in a statement.
Nevada Republican Dean Heller told reporters that he too plans to support the bill if the amendment is adopted.
Beyond the border-control debate, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah is insisting on changes to the conditions under which undocumented immigrants could become U.S. citizens as the price for his support of the bill. Hatch has proposed prohibiting non-citizens who gain legal status from obtaining welfare benefits and requiring immigrants to pay back taxes to qualify for temporary legal status.
Hoeven told reporters today that there was an effort to reach a compromise on Hatch’s proposal and perhaps add it to the border amendment.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated on June 18 that the Senate bill would reduce the federal budget deficit by about $175 billion over a decade and by $700 billion during the second 10 years after implementation. It said increased tax revenue from new U.S. residents would outpace growth in the demand for government services.
Backers of the compromise said today that they hoped it would make the Senate bill more acceptable to the Republican-controlled House.
House Speaker John Boehner told reporters today that an immigration plan must “have the confidence of the American people that it’s done the right way.”
“That means confidence that our borders are secure, confidence that those who came here illegally are not given special treatment, confidence that hard-working taxpayers are being respected” and that both parties support the final plan, he said.
Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has said he won’t bring an immigration proposal to a vote unless most Republicans in his chamber support it.