Sang Tan, ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — Senators are finalizing a deal that could add dramatic security improvements to the U.S.-Mexico border and smooth the way for bipartisan Senate passage of far-reaching immigration legislation backed by President Barack Obama.
The deal doubling Border Patrol agents and adding hundreds of miles of fencing along the Southwest border has already won support from four undecided Republican senators who are now likely to back the immigration bill when it comes to a final vote. On Friday, senators were in final negotiations on other elements of the deal, including provisions on Social Security and other benefits, that could bring still more GOP support on board.
The amendment was expected to be formally unveiled in the Senate Friday and come to a vote early next week, with the overall bill headed for a final vote several days later. The legislation opening the door to citizenship for millions appeared within reach of securing the broad bipartisan majority that its authors say is needed to ensure serious consideration by the GOP-controlled House.
However, the outcome there remains far from certain because many conservatives are opposed to offering citizenship to people who came to this country illegally.
"We really have tried to secure the border in a way that we hope can get bipartisan support and that Americans want," Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., an author of the amendment, told The Associated Press in a phone interview Friday. "We're hopeful to have a good bipartisan majority."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on Fox News Channel Friday that "if there's anyone who still will argue that the border is not secure after this, then border security is not their reason for opposing a path to citizenship for the people who are in this country illegally."
"Is it more than I would have recommended? Honestly, yes," McCain said. "But we've got to give people confidence."
Hoeven developed the amendment along with Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, in consultation with McCain, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and other members of the so-called Gang of Eight senators who wrote the immigration bill. It prevents immigrants now here illegally from attaining permanent resident status until a series of steps have been taken to secure the border.
These include doubling the Border Patrol with 20,000 new agents, 18 new unmanned surveillance drones, 350 miles of new pedestrian fencing to add to 350 miles already in place and an array of fixed and mobile devices to maintain vigilance, including high-tech tools such as infrared ground sensors and airborne radar.
The new provisions would be put in place over a decade, in line with the 10-year path to a permanent resident green card that the bill sets out for immigrants here illegally. During that time, the immigrants could live and work legally in a provisional status.
Vice President Joe Biden told a predominantly Latino crowd of 1,100 gathered in Las Vegas for the national conference for the League of United Latin American Citizens that now is the time for a "fair, and firm and unfettered path for 11 million people" to become U.S. citizens.
"The question you should ask is, 'What will immigration reform do for America?'" Biden said Thursday. "The answer is clear and resounding: It can and will do great things for America."
Hoeven said the 10-year cost of the border security amendment included $25 billion for the additional Border Patrol agents, $3 billion for fencing and $3.2 billion for other measures.
It's "border security on steroids," said Corker, who along with Hoeven had been uncommitted on the immigration bill. Both are now prepared to support it, assuming their amendment is adopted. Sens. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Mark Kirk, R-Ill., also announced their support for the deal Thursday.
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