WASHINGTON – Congress gave final approval Thursday to a $600 million border security package President Barack Obama sought to tighten the border with Mexico, a move supporters hope will open a broader political discussion on comprehensive immigration reform.
The Senate gave quick final approval to the measure in an unusual special session that was arranged to rectify an earlier procedural glitch. The House had passed the bill without dissent on Tuesday and Obama is expected to sign it today.
Immigration is an important election year issue for some voters, and supporters from both parties hope the new measure will demonstrate that Washington is capable of addressing border security after Arizona passed tough illegal immigration law.
“It’s my hope that the bill we’re passing today will break the deadlock that has existed in Congress and will clear the path for us to finally resume bipartisan negotiations in good faith on reforming our broken immigration system,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Thursday.
Advocates of a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system have denounced the package as a political stunt in an election year that does nothing to address broader issues, including providing a path to citizenship for the 11 million people in this country illegally.
But Congress has stalemated over any such broad immigration legislation.
The package will pay for deploying an additional 1,000 Border Patrol agents along the Southwest border, hiring 250 new Customs and Border Protection officers, and adding 250 Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel to target drug smuggling.
The funding will also add two unmanned surveillance planes and boost the Department of Justice’s resources for investigating and prosecuting organized drug gangs.
“These assets are critical to bringing additional capabilities to crack down on transnational criminal organizations and reduce the illicit trafficking of people, drugs, currency and weapons,” said acting Deputy Attorney General Gary G. Grindler.
Because Congress has been under political pressure not to increase deficit spending, the Senate offset costs by substantially hiking the fees on visas on companies that hire foreign workers – from $320 to as much as $2,750 each.
The fees would be imposed on companies that hire 50 or more foreign workers or have 50 percent of their staff on certain foreign visas.
Some Republicans questioned whether the legislation did enough to secure the borders. “There remain a number of things that need to be done to secure the border,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
The border-only strategy has political risks for Democrats who are relying on Latino voter turnout in the November election, especially in swing Southwestern states. Many Latino voters prefer a comprehensive approach.
Some immigration advocates believe there will be an endless quest for additional security measures, putting off a broader debate on reforming the immigration system.
But Schumer insisted that addressing border security will propel the broader debate forward because it “pulls away their No. 1 excuse.”
Congress is considered unlikely to revisit immigration until at least next year, however.
“Increased enforcement along our borders is only one part of a sound, comprehensive solution to fix our broken immigration system, and more work remains to achieve that ultimate goal,” said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader.
Since the Senate had recessed for its August break, the border bill was considered under a special agreement that does not require a vote if all senators agree to the measure. Only two senators were required to be present to accept the agreement.