Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and John Hoeven, R-S.D., announced an agreement to strengthen border security as part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill on Thursday, potentially clearing yet another hurdle from the path of reform proponents as they seek to muscle a bipartisan bill through both houses of Congress.
The border security proposals, which Hoeven and Corker said they hope to officially introduce as an amendment later on Thursday, would double the number of Border Patrol agents, bringing the total to 40,000, and it would also significantly expand the use of surveillance technology along the border, including unmanned drones, cameras, and ground sensors. The amendment would also double the amount of border fencing required under the immigration reform proposal, from 350 to 700 miles. Currently there are approximately 40 miles of fencing along the southern border.
According to the amendment's sponsors, all of the border security enhancements must be fully installed and operational before a path to legal permanent residency opens up for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in America. Sponsors, in addition to Hoeven and Corker, include Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., John McCain, R-Ariz., Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
The amendment would also make the availability of green cards contingent upon the successful implementation of the national E-Verify system, which prevents employers from hiring undocumented workers, and the national entry-exit system, which tracks visa holders to ensure they don't overstay their welcome.
Announcing the agreement on the Senate floor Thursday, Hoeven said, "Americans want immigration reform...but they want us to get it right. And that means first and foremost securing the border." He touted the proposal as a "straightforward" plan that relies on "objective, verifiable standards and metrics" to ensure border security.
Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Corker each described the amendment as a "border surge," framing the proposal as an unprecedented show of commitment to border security.
McCain, a member of the "gang of eight" senators who have been slogging away at immigration reform for months, told Hoeven and Corker he was "very, very grateful" for their efforts to defuse the border security fight, which has threatened to derail the comprehensive reform effort.
McCain added that the head of the Border Patrol has "assured" him that, if the border security enhancements in the amendment materialize, authorities would have 100 percent situational awareness of the situation along the southern border, and 90 percent control.
Opponents of the immigration reform bill largely came out against the border security amendment on Thursday, saying they remain unconvinced that the bill would ensure border security before opening a path to citizenship for undocumented residents.
Opponents particularly seized on the distinction between provisional legal status, which is an interim condition derided by opponents as "amnesty," and permanent legal residency, more commonly known as a "green card." They argued that the border security amendment would only prohibit undocumented workers from receiving their green card until the border is secured, but that it would technically legalize their residency in the United States immediately.
"Under this legislation, amended or not, amnesty will occur," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "It will be first," with only a "promise of the future enforcement."
Sessions was echoed by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who said the reform bill would make the mistake of "legalizing undocumented workers without first securing the borders."
"Throwing more money at the problem without results doesn't make sense," he argued. "There's no guarantee the money will be used or the programs implemented."
That charge was rebutted by Graham on Thursday: "If you hire the border patrol agents and put them on the border, they're not going to read a comic book, they're going to do their job."
If the border security amendment is adopted and the broader reform package passes the Senate, the fight for immigration reform still faces a tough road in the Republican-controlled House. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday that "immigration reform must be grounded in real border security," signaling that any proposal that strengthens the border security provisions in the Senate bill would ease its passage in the lower chamber.
But at least one key House lawmaker did not seem particularly enthused about the border security amendment due to be unveiled Thursday, accusing the senators behind the amendment of "throwing bodies" at the border in a way that will "not solve" the problem.
"The main problem here is that 35 to 40 percent of people who are not lawfully in the United States enter the country lawfully - visitors visas, business visas, student visa other types of visas," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which is moving ahead with an immigration reform proposal of its own. "What you do on the border is important, but ... fixing that does not solve the problem of enforcement."