The Senate on Thursday voted to hire 1,000 more U.S. Border Patrol agents as part of a $600 million border-security bill, acting swiftly in the hours before they left to face constituents during their five-week summer vacation.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, who is spearheading his party’s immigration-reform efforts, said the money shows Congress is committed to border security as a down payment on eventually legalizing illegal immigrants.
“I’m for comprehensive immigration reform. I think that’s the way to go. And I’m continuing to work on it,” Mr. Schumer said. “But we’ve always said we should do border security first. This is border security first.”
The money would come from charging higher fees on worker visas for companies whose staffs are made up of mostly foreign workers.
Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain, had offered their own proposals, which would deploy more agents to the border and expand detention of illegal border crossers, but Mr. McCain said Mr. Schumer’s bill was “a significant step forward.”
President Obama’s original budget request for the upcoming fiscal year actually called for cutting the number of Border Patrol agents, but facing pressure from Democrats and Republicans, he requested the $600 million in new spending, including the new agents. Mr. Obama has also begun to deploy up to 1,200 National Guard troops to the border to help in the interim, while the new agents are being hired.
Immigrant rights advocates on Thursday said the extra spending is a straw man and that Democrats are being baited by Republicans.
“It is extremely disappointing to see Congress fall for Republicans’ wholly manufactured allegations of an insecure border,” said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, who said the border is safer than ever before.
The bill took a fast track to passage. Mr. Schumer introduced it, along with Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, earlier in the day, and it passed later in the evening by unanimous consent, which means no senator objected. Republicans’ agreement seemed to take Democrats by surprise.
The legislation includes $176 million for 1,000 new Border Patrol agents to form a strike force to be deployed at critical areas, $89 million for an additional 500 customs and immigration personnel and $32 million to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.
It also provides an additional $196 million for the Justice Department to bolster its forces of U.S. marshals, and FBI, DEA and ATF agents along the border.
Immigration has heated up in recent months as drug violence on the border has gained attention, and polls show voters want the government to take action.
The bill still must pass the House, where lawmakers earlier this year passed the money as part of a broader war-spending bill, only to see it stripped out by the Senate.
But the House is coming back from its own six-week summer break for a special session next week to consider a $26 billion bill to fund teacher jobs and states for health care costs, and it’s possible they could consider the border-security money at that time.