The Senate agreed last night to amend the immigration reform bill to inject billions of new dollars into militarizing the US-Mexico border. The amendment, considered a compromise to galvanize Republican support to guarantee a supermajority in favor of the larger immigration overhaul, will lead to an expansion of border security beyond what even the most conservative members of Congress had previously demanded.
All of the 52 Democrats in the Senate were joined by 15 Republicans in voting to close debate on the amendment. The amendment, which was introduced last week by two Republican Senators, will double the number of border patrol to 40,000 from 20,000 in the next decade, purchase new security technology including drones and Blackhawk helicopters. It will also require the Department of Homeland Security to build 700 miles of new walls and fences on the border between the US and Mexico. It's all at a cost of $30 billion.
Before its passage, a number of leading immigrant rights groups blasted the amendment as a serious threat to the rights and safety of border communities.
"Border communities, and the DREAMers and families who live in the Southwest, have already been subjected to criminalization and militarization," Evelyn Rivera of the group United We Dream said in a statement. "This amendment is based on the false notion that our border is not secure or there hasn't been adequate enforcement up to this point."
The agreement was reached last week as the Senate rejected a proposal from Sen. John Cornyn, R, TX., that would have tied the bill's path to citizenship to the completion of a set of out-of-reach border enforcement goalposts. The so-called border triggers threatened to leave undocumented immigrants in a permanent legal limbo, Democrats argued. Cornyn's amendment would have added 5,000 more agents to the border.
Yesterday's border security amendment, which passed a cloture vote, will grow enforcement on the US-Mexico to levels never before seen. But many Democrats rallied behind the proposal because it does not tie the path to citizenship to a separate congressional approval of the border expansions. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D, N.Y., who helped lead the group of Senators who drafted the reform bill, said on the Senate floor yesterday that the new amendment will "make sure that the triggers could not be used deliberatively, by someone opposed to the path to citizenship, as a way to block it."
Immigrant rights groups warned that the compromise strategy is risky not only for border communities, but also for the prospects of passing an immigration bill in the House, which is poised to push any immigration legislation aggressively to the right.
"It makes little sense for Democrats to capitulate to irrational Republican demands, particularly at this stage in the legislative process," Chris Newman of the group National Day Laborers Network said in a statement, "Our focus should be on passing the best possible legislation in the Senate to maximize our ability to beat back the xenophobic and racist views that seem to have held the House of Representatives hostage."
Even as the amendment promised a massive expansion of militarized presence at the border, many Republicans in Senate remained committed to opposing reform legislation. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who has remained one of the staunchest opponents of the immigration bill, said he would not support the legislation even with the amendment because it conforms to what he called the "legalization first philosophy."
The Senate is expected to pass the full reform bill before July 4th. It's yet to be seen whether House Republicans, who are expected to take up immigration next month, will accept the draconian amendments as sufficient and get behind reform or follow Grassley's lead in opposing any bill.