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GOP senators broker deal on border security

Measure helps immigration bill’s chances

The deal would increase the number of border patrol agents along the boundary with Mexico from 21,000 to 40,000.

Eric Thayer/Reuters

The deal would increase the number of border patrol agents along the boundary with Mexico from 21,000 to 40,000.

WASHINGTON — Two Senate Republicans reached an agreement on Thursday on a plan to strengthen border security with the bipartisan group of eight senators that drafted an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, raising hopes that the new deal could build Republican support for the immigration legislation being debated on the Senate floor.

The deal, according to aides with knowledge of the discussions, will call for what was described as a “border surge” that nearly doubles the current border patrol force to 40,000 agents from 21,000, as well as the completion of 700 miles of fence on the southern border.

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The additional border agents, an aide said, would cost roughly $30 billion.

The expected endorsement of the proposal by several Senate Republicans would be a significant boost to the measure, which backers hope to push through the Senate by the end of next week. The provision was expected to attract the support of eight to 12 Republicans, according to some estimates.

The two Republican senators, Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota, have been working behind the scenes over the past few days to come up with a provision that would appease hesitant Republicans and help garner broad bipartisan support for the bill.

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“It is a very straightforward way to secure our border and to do so before allowing a pathway to legal permanent residency for those who came here illegally,” Hoeven said Thursday, explaining the deal on the Senate floor.

“Simply put, we must secure the border first,’’ he said. “That’s what Americans demand, and that’s what we must do to get comprehensive immigration reform right. That’s what this legislation does, and it does it with objective and verifiable metrics.”

Their amendment, Hoeven added, would provide “more manpower, more fencing, more technology.”

The two senators briefed their Republican colleagues at a party lunch, and afterward said they were heartened by the positive response. Their push to strengthen border security, they said, was given a boost by a Congressional Budget Office report released Tuesday that found that the current bill — without any additional border security provisions — would decrease annual illegal immigration by only 25 percent.

“We’re on the verge of doing something dramatic on the border, and if it happens it will be due to Hoeven and Corker and a lot of our colleagues,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina.

Graham, a member of the bipartisan group that drafted the original legislation, served as the group’s conduit to Corker and Hoeven to ensure that their provision was acceptable to both Democrats and Republicans.

The Corker-Hoeven proposal would be an alternative to an amendment introduced by Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas.

Cornyn’s plan would create strict goals that would need to be met before more than 11 million undocumented immigrants could start on the path to citizenship and attain legal status, including a 90 percent apprehension rate of illegal crossers at the southern border and a biometric exit system at all airports and seaports.

Democrats consider Cornyn’s plan a “poison pill” that is logistically hard to achieve and could indefinitely delay citizenship for those covered by the measure.

Originally, Corker and Hoeven were considering a provision that would have required a 90 percent effectiveness rate in apprehending or turning back illegal crossers, using a combination of conventional border infrastructure, like fencing and observation towers, and high-tech elements including heat-sensing cameras and drones.

“It has to be measurable, objective metrics so we know the border is secure and so that folks feel that it’s attainable and we can agree that we have a secure border,” Hoeven said. “We’re trying to come up with something where we can get Republicans and Democrats to agree on.”

Democrats, however, still objected to the 90 percent trigger linking border security to a pathway to citizenship, and on Wednesday, Corker said they had “come up with a solution.”

According to aides with knowledge of the discussions, the Republicans agreed to make the 90 percent figure a goal rather than a requirement, in exchange for a detailed border security plan that lays out serious assurances of both manpower and resources at the southern border.

“Unprecedented deployment of boots on the ground and commitment to the fence,” explained an aide close to the talks, speaking anonymously to talk candidly about continuing private discussions. The aide added that the Corker-Hoeven provision would go further in terms of adding border patrol agents than Cornyn’s plan.

“What we’re talking about is basically a dramatic effort to secure the border that would just in most people’s minds be substantial,” Graham said, when asked how the group had managed to reach an agreement on the 90 percent figure.

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