WASHINGTON — Thousands of federal agents with high-tech surveillance devices would be dispatched to the U.S.-Mexican border under a deal unveiled on Thursday aimed at winning more Republican support for an immigration bill in the Democratic-led U.S. Senate.
Senate budget hawks questioned the costs and benefits of the extra security, but their concerns were overshadowed by the deal’s main goal: to win votes for a sweeping revision of U.S. immigration law that will open a pathway to citizenship for up to 11 million undocumented immigrants.
The Senate could vote sometime next week to pass the bill. While there is little doubt that a majority of the 100-member Senate is prepared to vote yes, backers are hoping for 70 or more votes to help propel the measure through the more skeptical Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who voted Thursday on the Senate floor in support, said, “This amendment addresses the concerns that have been raised about the immigration reform bill’s border security provisions. These tough requirements will double the number of border security agents at the southern border, increase the amount of border fencing, and ensure the best border surveillance and security technology is in place – preventing another wave of illegal immigrants.”
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, an important backer of the legislation, referring to the high cost of the border security deal, estimated at up to $50 billion over 10 years, said, “I don’t know if it’s totally well spent. I think it’s important that we do this to give people confidence that we have border security, so in that respect it’s well spent.”
A leading conservative voice quickly embraced the deal.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American lawmaker from Florida who helped craft the bipartisan bill as part of a “Gang of Eight” in the Senate, said the deal was a “dramatic improvement in border security” during an interview on Fox News.
Rubio, touted as a possible 2016 presidential candidate, had hinged his full support on improvements in border security. His endorsement is seen as crucial to winning conservative backing for the biggest changes in U.S. immigration law in a generation.
The proposal, which could be formally offered as an amendment to the sprawling immigration bill as early as Thursday, would double the overall number of U.S. border patrol agents, according to senior Senate Democratic aides.
That would mean assigning 21,000 new officers to the southwestern border in an attempt to shut down future illegal crossings by foreigners.
“I am now confident ... that the Senate will pass a strong, bipartisan immigration reform bill and that it will ultimately reach the desk of the president for his signature,” Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York said.
The immigration bill, which is supported by President Barack Obama, currently calls for adding 3,500 Customs and Border Protection officers by 2017.
Besides doubling the number of border agents, the deal also calls for completing the construction of 700 miles of border fencing or walls, Senate aides said. About 650 miles have been built in one form or another, though some portions will have to be upgraded.
At an estimated price tag of around $40 billion to $50 billon, the amendment, if passed, would represent a potentially massive investment of federal resources in securing the border at a time when conservatives are complaining bitterly about government outlays.
As originally written, the legislation called for about $6 billion in new border security spending.