WASHINGTON—Immigration reform took a major step forward late Monday and looks poised to pass the U.S. Senate by the end of the week.
In a procedural test vote, a bipartisan group of senators overwhelmingly approved an amendment to strengthen border security measures in the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, which significantly improved Republican support for the bill. Senators voted 67-27—with 15 GOP members in the majority—to end debate on the amendment proposed Friday by Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and John Hoeven, R-N.D.
Among other things, the amendment adds 20,000 new security agents to the U.S. border with Mexico, doubling the current number deployed (which has already doubled from a decade ago). The original “Gang of Eight” bill filed in mid-April called for 3,500 new border agents.
The Corker/Hoeven proposal adds $46 billion in border security spending for everything from fencing to night-vision goggles and Blackhawk helicopters. To put that in perspective, the entire 2014 budget request for the Department of State and USAID is $47.8 billion.
Despite the massive spending, many Republicans say the bill will do little to improve border security. In the words of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the legislation “has no teeth.”
“This bill has $48 billion thrown up against the wall to buy the votes to say we’re going to have a secure border when in fact we’re not,” Coburn said in a floor speech.
But the border security improvements were enough to convince some skeptics, such as Sen. Bill Wicker, R-Miss., who voted in favor of the amendment because he said it would strengthen the overall bill. He cited five points as the key provisions: high-tech equipment, 20,000 border agents, 700 miles of secure border fencing, full implementation of E-Verify (employment verification), and an electronic visa entry/exit system at international airports and seaports in the United States.
Proponents of immigration reform came tantalizingly close to reaching their self-imposed 70-vote threshold, which they believe will add pressure on the Republican-controlled House to pass a bill. That won’t necessarily work (see the recent Farm Bill demise), but it’s also a mistake to assume those voting for the amendment will vote for the overall bill.
“Today’s vote is not the end of the debate on the immigration bill, but it does provide stronger enforcement than the provisions of the base bill,” Wicker said last night. “I am unlikely to vote in favor of the final passage of this bill unless more significant improvements are made in the coming days.”
The Senate legislation would overhaul the country’s legal system of entry while granting a 13-year path to citizenship for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants.
Opponents of the bill say no legalization should take place until the country’s borders are secure. As it stands now, illegal immigrants could achieve Registered Provisional Status (RPI) by paying a fine, passing criminal and background checks, and beginning to pay taxes.
Corker says his amendment ensures the green cards would not be issued to illegal immigrants for at least 10 years after enactment of the bill.