US border security key in immigration plan

Republicans aim for balance in new legislation

John McCain said border control is important, and cited big improvements to “surveillance capabilities.”
Reuters/CBS News
John McCain said border control is important, and cited big improvements to “surveillance capabilities.”

WASHINGTON — The immigration revisions that a bipartisan Senate group unveils soon will hinge on a Republican demand: making a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented in the United States contingent on a measurable boost in border security.

While trying to reconnect with a growing Hispanic electorate that has turned Democratic in voting, Republican lawmakers remain mindful of those within their party who rally around candidates campaigning against undocumented immigration.

They will try to find that balance in legislation that eight senators of both parties plan to propose this week, followed by a plan that a bipartisan House group is writing.


Republicans, cautious not to alienate their political base, want to demonstrate that they’re ‘‘tough on border security,’’ said Bruce Altschuler, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Oswego. ‘‘They need something in the legislation that will protect their right flank.’’

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The Senate group’s plan will provide more Border Patrol agents, improved infrastructure such as radio networks, and increased surveillance by unmanned aerial drones.

The bill also calls for a commission of state and local officials from states bordering Mexico to monitor progress of these measures and advise the Department of Homeland Security, according to principles the Senate group released in January.

‘‘A 90 percent effective border control is really an important criteria,’’ Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and a member of the Senate group, said in a March 22 interview with Bloomberg Television. ‘‘There is a commitment on the part of all members not only to spend more on the border and expand the fences, but to use the technology that — if there’s anything good that came out of Iraq and Afghanistan — it’s this dramatically improved surveillance capabilities we have.’’

The push to rewrite US immigration law is the first major effort since 2007. Republican opposition to providing a citizenship path has declined since November’s election, when President Obama won 71 percent of Hispanic votes cast. Republican leaders say the party needs to do more to court the fast-growing voter bloc.


An increase in border security could serve as a trigger allowing some of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States to move toward citizenship. How to measure improved security will be a contentious element of the congressional debate, said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a federation of state-based business groups that advocate rewriting immigration laws.

‘‘That trigger is going to be very important to Republican lawmakers,’’ Jacoby said, describing it as the political trade that Republicans will make for supporting a citizenship path.

While the Senate group and Obama administration say the undocumented should pass criminal background checks and pay back taxes and fines before becoming citizens, the administration has questioned linking border security.

‘‘I think that once people really look at the whole system and how it works, relying on one thing as a so-called trigger is not the way to go,’’ Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at a March 26 breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. ‘‘There needs to be certainty in the bill so that people know when they can legalize and then when a pathway to citizenship, earned citizenship would open up.’’

The government already is deporting many who entered the United States illegally. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 396,906 people in fiscal 2011 and a record 409,849 in fiscal 2012, according to figures released by the agency, a part of the Department of Homeland Security.


Still, lawmakers question the effectiveness of border protection that has enabled millions to enter the country without papers or remain in the country after visas have expired.