Congress on Thursday passed and sent President Obama a $600 million bill to pay for more law enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border, and Senate Democrats said they've now proved they are "serious" about security and that it's time to restart talks on legalizing illegal immigrants.
The Senate called a special session in the middle of its five-week August break just and passed the bill with the consent of all 100 senators. The House approved it earlier this week, and Mr. Obama has signaled he will sign the measure, calling border security "a top priority."
The bill funds 1,000 new U.S. Border Patrol agents, as well as 250 Customs and Border Protection officers and two more unmanned aerial vehicles.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, chairman of the Senate's immigration subcommittee, who shepherded the funding through the Senate, said the money takes care of border security and that Congress can now turn back to efforts to legalize the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already here.
"It will clear the path for restarting bipartisan discussions," Mr. Schumer said.
But border-state lawmakers said they don't consider the border security box checked off yet.
"Congress needs to be aware that their work is not nearly done. I will keep saying it until they hear me: While this is a valuable first step towards protecting folks in the Southwest, it will take much more to make up for years of failed policies along the border," said Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, Arizona Democrat, who has been pushing for stiffer border security.
Mr. Schumer tried to craft a bipartisan legalization bill earlier this year, but Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, who had been working with him, withdrew from negotiations. Mr. Graham said Congress should instead focus on border security and also complained about the parliamentary tactics Democrats were using to push legislation through the Senate.
Mr. Schumer said they've now taken care of the border-security concerns.
"In my many meetings with folks on the other side of the aisle to try and gain their support for comprehensive reform, I repeatedly heard them say that once we showed we were serious about passing border-security legislation, they would be able to begin working with us to fix all of the other aspects of our broken immigration system," he said.
He and his allies want a bill that would grant a multi-step path to citizenship to most illegal immigrants, and that would also rewrite the rules on legal immigration.
Many lawmakers say Congress' last effort in 2007 to pass a broad immigration bill failed because voters were not convinced the borders would be secured. Since then, "enforcement first" became a mantra of many Republicans.
The Obama administration has argued that the southwest border is more secure now than it's been in decades, and they point to the number of Border Patrol agents on duty, and to the falling rate of apprehensions as evidence. Mr. Obama also has called for deploying up to 1,200 National Guard troops on the border until the new Border Patrol agents can be hired and trained.
Arizona officials, though, question whether their state is more secure now. They point to rising drug-fueled violence in Arizona and say they are seeing spillover effects in their state, such as increasing attacks on Border Patrol agents.
The border bill was paid for by increasing some visa fees on companies that Mr. Schumer said are circumventing the intent of visa laws by bringing in foreign workers, training them here and then sending them back overseas to do the same work there. Mr. Schumer said that arrangement is actually costing American workers jobs they would otherwise get.
The Border Patrol has rapidly expanded over the last five years, doubling from 10,000 agents to about 20,000, and this new measure will go further still.
Mr. Obama had actually called for cutting the number of agents in his 2011 budget, but facing a backlash from Congress earlier this year he proposed the 1,000-agent increase and submitted an emergency funding request, which became the basis for the bill Congress just passed.
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