WASHINGTON – More than 20,000 new border patrol agents, hundreds of kilometers of fencing, billions of dollars in drones, radar and sensors: U.S. lawmakers are proposing a militaristic remedy to staunch illegal immigrant flow from Mexico.
The Senate on Monday gave the green light to the most important amendment yet to the landmark immigration bill, but the measure — designed to placate Republican concerns about security — would ensure that the border region is one of the most highly policed zones in the Western Hemisphere.
The Senate voted 67-27 to proceed to debate on the proposal, exceeding the threshold necessary to move forward, but falling short of the 70 votes that some supporters hoped it might earn. Fifteen Republicans voted with 52 members of the Senate Democratic caucus in support of the plan, although the two Democrats who missed the vote support the amendment.
Critics call the plan “border security on steroids,” and even the amendment’s GOP author concedes the measures to clamp down on illegal crossings might be “overkill.”
With the amendment’s approval, the most sweeping immigration reform in nearly three decades is set for Senate passage. It then heads to the House of Representatives where it faces an uncertain fate, although optimists are hoping the bill becomes law this year. The goal: bring 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S., most of them Mexican, out of the shadows with a 13-year-long pathway to citizenship; reform the work visa system in agriculture and high technology sectors; and institute electronic employment verification and comprehensive entry-exit tracking.
But to boost chances for President Barack Obama to become the first U.S. leader to enact major immigration reform since Ronald Reagan in 1986, his Democrats have increased concessions to Republicans to ensure that authorities can prevent a new wave of illegal immigrants.
Under the compromise, crafted by Republican Sens. Bob Corker and John Hoeven, the number of federal border agents will surge from about 18,000 today to 38,405, the equivalent of about 12 per km along the 3,200-km border. In 2002, there were just 10,000 assigned agents.
Lawmakers supporting the deal want the 500 km of existing anti-vehicle barriers on nontribal lands converted into more secure “pedestrian fencing.”
They also want 80 new kilometers of fencing put in place, for a total of 1,120 km of the high fencing. Some of the fencing includes a stretch along the Rio Grande, which forms a 2,000-km natural boundary between Mexico and the U.S. state of Texas.
The amendment details an arsenal of equipment worth $3.2 billion for four unmanned drone systems, 40 helicopters, 30 boats, 4,595 unattended ground sensors with seismic, imaging and infrared capability, and hundreds of fixed cameras and mobile surveillance systems.
“Is it more than I would have recommended? Honestly, yes,” Sen. John McCain, one of four Republicans who crafted the underlying bill, told Fox News on Friday. “But we’ve got to give people confidence.”
In Washington, the “border surge” proposal is already being compared with the “surge” of U.S. war troop reinforcements that President George W. Bush ordered to Iraq in 2007.
“That military reference makes sense because it is going to militarize hundreds of American communities in the Southwest,” veteran Senate Democrat Patrick Leahy said.
However, the flood of protections was a fundamental condition some Republicans demanded for joining most of the 54 Democratic senators as they sought an overwhelming majority of 70 votes in the 100-seat chamber to give the bill momentum heading to the House.
“This is about politics, not about the facts on the ground,” said Doris Meissner, director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute. Apprehension numbers are at their lowest in 40 years, she noted, thanks in part to investments made since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks of 2001.
But the Corker-Hoeven deal insists on dramatically ramping up the militaristic technology along the border, including use of the ominously named VADER radar — first used to track insurgents in Afghanistan — to find people hiding in the desert.
“It’s almost overkill,” Corker himself admitted.
A coterie of conservatives are already banding together against the legislation, including Texas Sen. John Cornyn.
Cornyn accused top Senate Democrat Harry Reid of running a Senate “dictatorship” by exerting unassailable control over which immigration amendments received votes in recent weeks.
While recognizing the amendment boosts border enforcement, Cornyn said it unacceptably fails to implement border “triggers” that would only allow the full legalization for undocumented workers to begin once all the border security measures are in place.
“This bill has no teeth. This bill has $48 billion thrown up against the wall to buy the votes to say this bill will secure the border, and it will not,” Sen. Tom Coburn said.
However, Democrats say the new border enforcement has no fewer than five triggers, including the requirement that the “e-verify” system be in place before any permanent residency cards are issued to legalized immigrants. “They just won’t take yes for an answer,” Schumer said. “No one can dispute that the border will become virtually air tight.”