WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress on Thursday passed legislation to strengthen security along the border with Mexico, trying to tackle the politically sensitive issue of illegal immigrants ahead of November congressional elections.
The Senate passed the bill on a voice vote, two days after the House of Representatives interrupted a six-week recess to approve it and another measure providing aid for struggling states.
The $600 million border security bill now goes to President Barack Obama, who had requested the funding. Obama will sign it into law on Friday, a White House spokesman said.
The president said the legislation would "build upon our successful efforts to protect communities along the Southwest border and across the country."
"And this new law will also strengthen our partnership with Mexico in targeting the gangs and criminal organizations that operate on both sides of our shared border," Obama said in a statement.
The $600 million will fund some 1,500 new border patrol agents, customs inspectors and other law enforcement officials along the southwestern border, as well as two more unmanned aerial "drones" to monitor border activities.
Congress' speedy approval of the border security funds marked a rare display of bipartisanship in the hot-button immigration debate.
Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat and one of only two senators present for debate of the bill in the 100-member chamber, said he hoped its passage would help break a deadlock over broader immigration reforms, and Obama said he wanted to continue working toward that goal.
But it appeared an uphill battle in the increasingly partisan atmosphere ahead of the November 2 elections.
There are about 11 million illegal immigrants believed to be living in the United States. But immigration advocates say Republicans have inflated concerns about illegals to put Democrats on the defensive as Democrats try to keep control of Congress.
With the measure's passage, members of Congress who are running for re-election will be able to spend the next several weeks boasting that they acted to reinforce the border.
The plan is financed with higher visa fees on some foreign companies operating in the United States, prompting a protest from the government of India, whose companies would be hit.
Schumer denied the bill intended to target India, saying the intent was to raise fees on companies that exploit a U.S. law to import a high percentage of their workers from abroad.
"Congress does not want the H-1B visa program to be a vehicle for creating multinational temp agencies," he said.
Senate aides said the fee increase was for just three years, and that four Indian technology companies would be affected: Tata, Infosys, Wipro and Mahindra Satyam.
The bill will fund 1,000 new border patrol agents and 250 customs and border protection officers at points of entry. It will also pay for more than 250 special immigration enforcement agents, investigators, and intelligence analysts.
Republican Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl, both from Arizona, said the bill was a "start" but more needed to be done to make the border secure.
Officials in southwestern states have asked for more help from the federal government to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, weapons and narcotics. Obama already has ordered more National Guard troops to the border for a year.
A federal judge last month blocked key parts of an Arizona law that sought to drive illegal immigrants out of the state, handing a victory to the Obama administration, which argued the measure was unconstitutional.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham