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Senate moves forward on border security amendment, boosting chances of immigration reform bill

Agents Patrol Texas Border To Stop Illegal Immigrants From Entering U.S.

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U.S. Border Patrol agents search a vehicle stopped while heading into Mexico at the Hidalgo border crossing in Hidalgo, Texas, May 2010. The Senate voted Monday to move ahead with an amendment to its immigration reform bill that would heavily increase border security, doubling the size of the Border Patrol.

The Senate voted 67-27 Monday to move forward on an amendment to its comprehensive immigration reform bill that would make the plan much heavier on border enforcement, a compromise that's expected to draw more Republican support for the bill's passage.

Cloture was invoked, with 15 Republicans voting in favor, paving the way for a final vote on the amendment later in the week. The vote count signals a good show of support for the overall bill when the Senate votes on it, which could be as early as Thursday.

At the center of Senate bill S. 744 is a legalization plan that could benefit many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. As proposed, those who qualify would initially apply for provisional legal status, then after a decade be able to move on to permanent status – and get on the path to citizenship – if the government meets certain border security goals.

Amendment 1183, known as the "border surge" amendment, makes permanent legal status even further contingent upon border security goals, and they are lofty ones. Among them:

  • An additional 20,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents, doubling the size of the agency.
  • A completed 700 miles of border fence.
  • High-tech surveillance equipment along the lines of unmanned aerial drones, ground sensors, infrared cameras and other technology.
  • An entry-exit system to track who comes and goes from the country.
  • A mandatory employee verification system to discourage immigrants from working illegally.

The amendment is also pricey, to the anticipated tune of more than $30 billion. Last week, the Congressional Budget Office released an analysis of the Senate bill, calculating that if it became law, it would decrease the federal budget deficit by $197 billion over the coming decade, largely the result of new taxpayers entering the system.

On Monday, the CBO released a separate analysis of the border security amendment and how it could work as part of the bill. With the amendment, the bill would still reduce the deficit, the CBO calculates, but less so after the border security costs. From the CBO website:

CBO expects that the amendment would reduce the net flow of unauthorized residents to the United States relative to the flows that would occur under the committee-approved version of S. 744. The agency also expects that the amendment would not have a significant impact on legal immigration or on the legalization of currently unauthorized immigrants, compared with what would occur under the committee-approved version of the bill.

All told, CBO and JCT expect that enacting the amendment would, like enacting S. 744, reduce the federal deficit over both the next 10 years and the second decade following enactment.

We also expect that the net deficit reduction under the substitute amendment would be somewhat smaller than the $197 billion in deficit reduction over the 2014-2023 period that CBO and JCT estimated for the committee-approved version of the bill. The difference in deficit reduction between the two versions of the legislation would probably be similar in magnitude to the increase in spending for border security.

More proposed amendments are expected before the Senate bill comes to a vote.

While the cloture vote Monday bodes well for passage of the immigration bill in the Senate, and could help its chances in the House, there are no guarantees. House GOP leadership has been less than receptive, with House Speaker John Boehner announcing last week that he wouldn't bring an immigration bill up for a floor vote unless it's supported by a majority of his fellow Republicans.

The House has also begun moving on stand-alone immigration bills, among them a controversial one titled the Strengthen and Fortify Enforcement Act, or SAFE Act. The stringent enforcement bill proposes further criminalizing illegal presence in the U.S., allowing state and local jurisdictions to set their own immigration policies, creating more immigrant detention space and giving state and local police more latitude to enforce immigration laws. 

It all sets the stage for a fiery debate if the Senate bill clears the floor.

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