WASHINGTON — A breakthrough at hand, Republicans and Democrats reached for agreement Thursday on a costly, military-style surge to secure the leaky U.S.-Mexican border and clear the way for Senate passage of legislation giving millions of immigrants a chance at citizenship after years in America’s shadows.
Lawmakers in both parties described a southern border that would be bristling with law enforcement manpower and technology as a result of legislation at the top of President Barack Obama’s second-term domestic policy agenda. The emerging deal called for a doubling of the Border Patrol, with 20,000 new agents, 18 new unmanned surveillance drones, 350 miles of fencing and an array of fixed and mobile devices. “This is a border surge. We have militarized our border, almost,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.
“Boots on the ground, drones in the air,” summed up Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who has been at the center of efforts to push immigration legislation through the Senate.
The plan was announced by Sens. John Hoeven of North Dakota and Bob Corker of Tennessee, Republicans who had been publicly uncommitted on the legislation. Both said other GOP fence-sitters would also swing behind the measure if the changes were incorporated, and by late in the afternoon, two had done so. A final vote on the legislation is expected by the end of next week.
The next move would be up to the House, where majority Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed to granting citizenship to immigrants living in the United States illegally. Talks on any final compromise would be held in the fall — if then.
The White House declined to respond to requests for comment on the Senate proposal, even though congressional officials said administration officials were involved in the formal drafting of the terms.
Under the emerging deal, an estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally would be eligible to obtain legal status while border security was increased. They could not be awarded green cards, which bestow permanent residency status, until the entire border-enhancement plan had been put into place.
That effectively would give the government a decade to set up the additional security, since the legislation envisions a pathway to citizenship that gives immigrants provisional status after six months but requires them to wait at least a decade before they become eligible for green cards. Despite the changes, the legislation appeared certain to retain the basic contours negotiated over many months by a so-called Gang of Eight, four senators from each party.