U.S. Border Patrol agents ride along the U.S.-Mexico border at Naco, Ariz.… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
WASHINGTON — The Senate is poised to approve a military-style buildup along the U.S. border with Mexico, doubling the number of Border Patrol agents on the ground and tripling the number of drones overhead -- a $30-billion plan designed to win the votes of as many as 15 Republican senators for the immigration reform bill.
The plan would add so many new agents to the Border Patrol -- 20,000 -- that if all were deployed at once, they could be stationed about every 250 feet along the border, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
Spending that amount -- more than four times what senators initially had proposed -- would also be a boost to defense contractors and an economic stimulus for border communities, creating thousands of jobs that could raise home prices and spur consumer spending around border security stations.
The proposed "border surge" at a time of budget austerity and record low numbers of illegal crossings had even backers expressing doubts. But they said it would provide political protection to allow Republicans to vote for a measure that remains unpopular with many of their constituents.
"This is a surge -- a border surge. We've practically militarized the border," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who helped negotiate the new agreement, which was unveiled Thursday. "We've had two waves of illegal immigration. We can't stand a third."
The plan worked out over the last several days appeared to loosen a logjam in the Senate that had threatened to undo months of work on the most comprehensive immigration overhaul in a generation. And although neither the political left nor right was fully pleased with the deal, some key figures on both side said it could represent the best chance to pass a bill.
"I'm not sure throwing money at something not working well is a solution, but we need a solution," said Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union. "But having said that, it is now about trying to figure out: How do we also make sure we get something through that fixes this god-awful problem of a broken immigration system?"
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), assistant majority leader and a leading liberal, said the deal involved "big numbers -- some would say even overkill numbers -- but it becomes more and more difficult for Republican senators to argue they're not getting enough force on the border."
Civil rights groups decried the proposal as a threat to people who live near the border and unnecessary at a time when deportations of immigrants are at record highs.
"This massive deployment of force would be simply devastating for border communities," said Joanne Lin, a legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Many border-area residents are already frustrated with the number of roadside checkpoints and what some see as a militarization of the boundary many cross daily to conduct business and visit relatives.
Budget hawks were stunned at the price tag, even though the costs would be paid by new taxes and fees on immigrants seeking legal status and employers seeking guest-worker visas.
The White House had no comment on the proposal, said spokesman Bobby Whithorne. White House officials met with Democratic senators Thursday and were reviewing the compromise.
Backers of the immigration overhaul have argued they need a robust Senate vote to spur action in the House. The Republican majority in that chamber has shown little interest in allowing the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally to achieve permanent legal status, let alone have a chance to become citizens.
The Senate is expected to complete work on the immigration bill next week.
Until now, only a handful of Senate Republicans have supported the bill. The border proposal, drafted by Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), is aimed to win over those who are open to the citizenship path.
Those GOP senators have urgently sought provisions that would allow them to say they had strengthened the border. Initially, they wanted to delay the citizenship process until the border was fully secure, a goal the bill's original sponsors -- a group of four Democrats and four Republicans -- said was not achievable and would leave immigrants in a gray zone indefinitely.
Instead, under the agreement, immigrants who pay fees and fines and remain in good standing could receive permanent legal status after 10 years, through green cards.
But they could obtain that status only after these five border security objectives were met: deployment of the new officers; completion of 700 miles of border fence; operation of a new E-Verify program for all employers to verify the legal status of new hires; expansion of a new exit visa system to record departures at all airports and seaports; and deployment of technology such as drone-mounted Vader radar surveillance.