Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who met with a group of conservatives about the… (Douglas Graham / Roll Call )
WASHINGTON — As a sweeping immigration bill moves forward in the Senate, Republicans are demanding stronger border security measures than those agreed upon during four months of bipartisan negotiation.
The process of toughening the bill could win additional votes from the GOP, but there is also a risk of losing Democratic support if the amendments go too far.
"If, in fact, the American people can't trust that the border is controlled, you're never going to be able to pass this bill," Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, told four officials from the Department of Homeland Security during a hearing Tuesday. "So you're going to have to help us figure out how to do it."
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican author of the bill whose support is considered essential to win over conservatives, said in a statement Tuesday that, for the bill to be passed, "it will have to be improved to bolster border security and enforcement even further."
Several committees are scrutinizing the legislation this week. The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin considering changes Thursday. On Tuesday night, committee members submitted hundreds of amendments.
Under the bill, most of the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally would be able to become citizens after 13 years, provided the Border Patrol can stop 90% of those trying to enter the United States without proper documentation in the most high-traffic areas of the border with Mexico.
The bill calls for the department to hire 3,500 more Customs and Border Protection agents and employ more border fencing, cameras, drones and radar systems to detect illegal crossings. But Homeland Security officials have resisted demands by Congress to come up with a precise way of tallying the success rate.
Rubio is working with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) on an amendment that would require 90% effectiveness across the entire southwestern border. It also would add three times as many Customs and Border Protection agents, authorize more than $300 million a year to prosecute border crimes and shorten the time for meeting the security goals from 10 years to nine, according to a Senate aide who asked not to be identified in order to discuss internal negotiations.
Under the amendment, immigrants would not be able to gain permanent residency until there was "operational control" of the southwestern border for at least one year.
Rubio on Tuesday gathered nearly 30 conservative leaders for an hourlong private meeting, and many emerged from his office confident the bill would be made stronger.
"The bill is changing as we speak," said Jeffrey Bell, policy director at the American Principles Project. "It'll toughen."
A second Senate aide said there was room to tweak the border security provisions, but the way the security "triggers" are designed is a major part of the compromise that was worked out by a bipartisan group of senators.
Rubio "knows what is at the core of the deal," the aide said. "The question is, will he stick with it?"
Senators from both parties challenged Homeland Security officials Tuesday to explain how they would spend more than $4.5 billion in the bill for improving border security.
"You're going to get this money; what are you going to do with it?" Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, asked the border security officials.
Border Patrol Chief Michael J. Fisher said that he would like to improve the agency's ability to move agents to different areas of the border and its use of the intelligence collected by cameras, radar and other surveillance technologies. Getting to a 90% effectiveness rate in the high-trafficked areas is possible, he said. Right now the Border Patrol has between 78% and 85% effectiveness in those areas, he said.
David F. Heyman, assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, said provisions in the Senate bill that increase sanctions on employers who hire unauthorized workers and clamp down on people who overstay their visas would go a long way toward solving the country's immigration problems.
"If it were easy, we would have done it 20 years ago, 10 years ago, today. It's not, but this [bill] provides us the best path forward," Heyman said.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said during the hearing that he was in favor of immigration reform, but didn't think that the current bill was "strong enough" to pass the Republican-controlled House.