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 can turn their attention to restarting talks on legalizing illegal immigrants.
The Senate called a special session in the middle of its five-week August break just to address the issue, and passed the bill with the consent of all 100 senators. The House approved it earlier this week. The measure will fund 1,000 new U.S. Border Patrol agents, another 250 Customs and Border Protection officers and two more unmanned aerial vehicles.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and chairman of the Senate’s immigration subcommittee, who shepherded the funding through the Senate, said that the money takes care of the issue of border security and that Congress now can 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, saying Congress should instead focus on border security, and also complaining about the parliamentary tactics Democrats were using to push the legislation through.
Mr. Obama is expected to quickly sign the measure, which enjoyed strong bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. Mr. Schumer said supporters of immigration law overhaul have now taken care of the border security concerns that have stalled action on more comprehensive immigration legislation.
“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.
Mr. Schumer and his allies want a bill that would grant a multistep path to citizenship to most illegal immigrants and that also would 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 against illegal immigrants. 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, pointing to the number of Border Patrol agents on duty and to the falling rate of apprehensions as evidence.
Arizona officials, though, report rising drug-fueled violence in Arizona and say they are seeing spillover effects in their state, such as increasing attacks on Border Patrol agents. They also say the killing earlier this year of a popular Arizona rancher may be related to the drug cartels.
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 expanded rapidly over the past five years, doubling from 10,000 agents to about 20,000, and this new measure will go further still.
Mr. Obama had 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.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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