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Senate poised to OK border ‘surge’

The Senate is poised to approve a military-style buildup along the U.S. border with Mexico, doubling the number of Border Patrol agents on the ground and tripling the number of drones overhead -- a $30-billion plan designed to win the votes of as many as 15 Republican senators for the immigration reform bill.

The plan would add so many new agents to the Border Patrol -- 20,000 -- that if all were deployed at once, they could be stationed about every 250 feet along the border, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

Spending that amount -- more than four times what senators initially had proposed -- would also be a boost to defense contractors and an economic stimulus for border communities, creating thousands of jobs that could raise home prices and spur consumer spending around border security stations.

The proposed “border surge” at a time of budget austerity and record low numbers of illegal crossings had even backers expressing doubts. But they said it would provide political protection to allow Republicans to vote for a measure that remains unpopular with many of their constituents.

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“This is a surge -- a border surge. We’ve practically militarized the border,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who helped negotiate the new agreement, which was unveiled Thursday. “We’ve had two waves of illegal immigration. We can’t stand a third.”

The plan worked out over the last several days appeared to loosen a logjam in the Senate that had threatened to undo months of work on the most comprehensive immigration overhaul in a generation. And although neither the political left nor right was fully pleased with the deal, some key figures on both side said it could represent the best chance to pass a bill.

“I’m not sure throwing money at something not working well is a solution, but we need a solution,” said Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union. “But having said that, it is now about trying to figure out: How do we also make sure we get something through that fixes this god-awful problem of a broken immigration system?”

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), assistant majority leader and a leading liberal, said the deal involved “big numbers -- some would say even overkill numbers -- but it becomes more and more difficult for Republican senators to argue they’re not getting enough force on the border.”

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Civil rights groups decried the proposal as a threat to people who live near the border and unnecessary at a time when deportations of immigrants are at record highs.

“This massive deployment of force would be simply devastating for border communities,” said Joanne Lin, a legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Many border-area residents are already frustrated with the number of roadside checkpoints and what some see as a militarization of the boundary many cross daily to conduct business and visit relatives.

Budget hawks were stunned at the price tag, even though the costs would be paid by new taxes and fees on immigrants seeking legal status and employers seeking guest-worker visas.

The White House had no comment on the proposal, said spokesman Bobby Whithorne. White House officials met with Democratic senators Thursday and were reviewing the compromise.

Backers of the immigration overhaul have argued they need a robust Senate vote to spur action in the House. The Republican majority in that chamber has shown little interest in allowing the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally to achieve permanent legal status, let alone have a chance to become citizens.

The Senate is expected to complete work on the immigration bill next week.

Until now, only a handful of Senate Republicans have supported the bill. The border proposal, drafted by Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), is aimed to win over those who are open to the citizenship path.

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Those GOP senators have urgently sought provisions that would allow them to say they had strengthened the border. Initially, they wanted to delay the citizenship process until the border was fully secure, a goal the bill’s original sponsors -- a group of four Democrats and four Republicans -- said was not achievable and would leave immigrants in a gray zone indefinitely.

Instead, under the agreement, immigrants who pay fees and fines and remain in good standing could receive permanent legal status after 10 years, through green cards.

But they could obtain that status only after these five border security objectives were met: deployment of the new officers; completion of 700 miles of border fence; operation of a new E-Verify program for all employers to verify the legal status of new hires; expansion of a new exit visa system to record departures at all airports and seaports; and deployment of technology such as drone-mounted Vader radar surveillance.

Some GOP senators justified the increase in border security by pointing to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which projected that if the immigration bill passed, the U.S. would gain 7 million additional unauthorized immigrants in the next decade. The budget office report, however, was based almost entirely on the expectation that some people who entered the country legally would overstay their visas, not that people would cross the border illegally.

The proposal would increase the number of surveillance drones flying over the southern border from six to 18. “If you’re worried about drones, you lost big here,” Graham said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) this week called drones “the greatest threat to the privacy of Americans.” She changed the bill in committee to restrict the use of drones in California to within three miles of the border. In other Southwest border states, drones could fly within 100 miles of Mexico with approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The proposal would almost double the 21,000 agents already arrayed on the border -- a move that could degrade the force, according to the union that represents agents. At 41,000 agents, the Border Patrol would be nearly twice the size of the California National Guard and larger than the FBI, which employs about 36,100 people.

The Border Patrol doubled in size between 2005 and 2013, a period that also saw a rise in corruption investigations and accusations of misuse of force. During that period, the agency “recruited at swap meets and other events that aren’t known for having the best candidates for a law enforcement job,” wrote Shawn P. Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council representing 17,000 border agents and staff, in an email.

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Obama administration officials want senators to define the 20,000 additional agents broadly enough to allow the Department of Homeland Security to hire more customs officers, investigators, prosecutors, pilots and other border officers, as well as Border Patrol agents.

Even some Republicans who want a tougher border chafed at the size of the proposed expansion.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she did not like the idea of doubling the patrol. “I think it would be extremely expensive,” she said. “And I think we need more of a reliance on technology.”

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lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

brian.bennett@latimes.com

Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.


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