Senators struck a deal Thursday to boost border security in the immigration bill, including building 700 miles of fence and adding 20,000 Border Patrol agents to the Southwest, in a move those on both sides say could clear the way for a bipartisan vote next week.
A handful of Republican senators already have said the security proposal — which was being finalized Thursday evening and could be put up for a vote Monday — will earn their support for a full immigration deal.
The bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators who crafted the main bill signed off, too, saying the additional fencing and manpower would guarantee success in preventing illegal border crossings.
"It is safe to say that this agreement has the power to change minds in the Senate," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and chief sponsor of the bill. "With this agreement, we have now answered every criticism that has come forward about the immigration bill."
The proposal would require hiring 20,000 more Border Patrol agents and deploying them to the U.S.-Mexico border, which more than doubles the 18,462 agents there as of January, and require another 350 miles of pedestrian fencing along with the 352 miles that exist.
Illegal immigrants still would get quick "provisional" legal status and work permits before those conditions are met. But they would not be able to get green cards -— signifying the key step on the path to citizenship — until the 20,000 agents and new fencing are checked off.
Mr. Schumer said he was able to sign off on the added security because this week's report from the Congressional Budget Office showed the bill will reduce the federal deficit by nearly $200 billion over 10 years, thanks to added taxes from additional foreign workers and legalized immigrants. Mr. Schumer said those savings can be plowed back into border security.
Sen. John Hoeven, the North Dakota Republican who negotiated the border security amendment with fellow Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, said he expects the added security will cost slightly more than $30 billion — with $25 billion of that going to hire and pay the new Border Patrol salaries.
Critics said the bill doesn't require results, but rather relies on checking off boxes for agents hired and money spent.
"All we have are more promises about future performance, and I must say our record of keeping our promises when it comes to immigration reform are beyond pathetic," said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican. He pointed to the 1996 promise of an entry-exit system to check all visitors' visas — a system that still isn't in place.
The Senate bill again promises to complete the system, though it waters down existing law by dropping the requirement for biometric identifiers such as fingerprints, and does not require checks for those crossing on the ground, only those entering at airports and seaports.
Democrats have objected to requiring any hard measures of security, saying they fear a future Republican president would fiddle with the numbers to delay the path to citizenship.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who was part of the Gang of Eight, said the spending alone is good enough, because there is no way it can fail to end in security.
"I've been working on this for almost a decade with Sen. [John] McCain. I can look anybody in the eye and tell them that if you put 20,000 Border Patrol agents on the border in addition to the 20,000 we've already got — that's one every 1,000 feet — that will work," Mr. Graham said. "If you build the fence, that all helps. So I don't need any more than just getting it in place."
Tempers flared during debate on the Senate floor.
At one point, Mr. Cornyn mocked Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, for flip-flopping on adding border agents and fencing.
On Wednesday, Mr. McCain blasted Mr. Cornyn's proposal to build fencing and add 5,000 agents, saying it was too expensive and that those decisions should be left to the Homeland Security Department. But on Thursday, Mr. McCain embraced the Hoeven-Corker proposal.
"Now I find to my shock and amazement the distinguished senior senator from Arizona saying we need 20,000 more Border Patrol," Mr. Cornyn said.
Mr. McCain replied that his state has taken the brunt of illegal immigration and drug-smuggling, and he is eager for a solution that will work.
"I take a back seat to no one, even from the great state of Texas," he said.
Mr. Cornyn's own border security amendment, which would have prevented illegal immigrants from getting green cards until the government was successfully preventing or turning back 90 percent of illegal crossers, was defeated on a 54-43 vote earlier in the day.
Still, that vote fractured the Gang of Eight as Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and the man expected to sell the immigration deal to conservatives, voted with Mr. Cornyn.
The CBO report that lawmakers said cleared the budget space for them to boost border security also warned that the bill as written would cut future illegal immigration by only 25 percent, meaning millions more illegal immigrants over the next decade.
The CBO said that rather than cross the border, those illegal immigrants are likely to have come legally as guest workers — which are boosted under the bill — and then stay after their work period has expired.
© Copyright 2016 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.