WASHINGTON Thousands of federal agents with high-tech surveillance devices would be dispatched to the U.S.-Mexican border under a deal unveiled on Thursday aimed at winning more Republican support for an immigration bill in the Democratic-led U.S. Senate.
Senate budget hawks questioned the costs and benefits of the extra security, but their concerns were overshadowed by the deal's main goal: to win votes for a sweeping revision of U.S. immigration law that will open a pathway to citizenship for up to 11 million undocumented immigrants.
The Senate could vote sometime next week to pass the bill. While there is little doubt that a majority of the 100-member Senate is prepared to vote yes, backers are hoping for 70 or more votes to help propel the measure through the more skeptical Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
"I don't know if it's totally well spent," said Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, an important backer of the legislation, referring to the high cost of the border security deal, estimated at up to $50 billion over 10 years. "I think it's important that we do this to give people confidence that we have border security, so in that respect it's well spent."
A leading conservative voice quickly embraced the deal.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American lawmaker from Florida who helped craft the bipartisan bill as part of a "Gang of Eight" in the Senate, said the deal was a "dramatic improvement in border security" during an interview on Fox News.
Rubio, touted as a possible 2016 presidential candidate, had hinged his full support on improvements in border security. His endorsement is seen as crucial to winning conservative backing for the biggest changes in U.S. immigration law in a generation.
The proposal, which could be formally offered as an amendment to the sprawling immigration bill as early as Thursday, would double the overall number of U.S. border patrol agents, according to senior Senate Democratic aides.
That would mean assigning 21,000 new officers to the southwestern border in an attempt to shut down future illegal crossings by foreigners.
"I am now confident ... that the Senate will pass a strong, bipartisan immigration reform bill and that it will ultimately reach the desk of the president for his signature," Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York said.
The immigration bill, which is supported by President Barack Obama, currently calls for adding 3,500 Customs and Border Protection officers by 2017.
Besides doubling the number of border agents, the deal also calls for completing the construction of 700 miles of border fencing or walls, Senate aides said. About 650 miles have been built in one form or another, though some portions will have to be upgraded.
At an estimated price tag of around $40 billion to $50 billon, the amendment, if passed, would represent a potentially massive investment of federal resources in securing the border at a time when conservatives are complaining bitterly about government outlays.
As originally written, the legislation called for about $6 billion in new border security spending.
CRITICS STILL UNHAPPY
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, an aggressive critic of the bill, mocked the deal even though he has been calling for tougher border enforcement. He noted that it was drafted after congressional analysts estimated the bill would trim illegal immigration by just 25 percent.
"The bill gets in trouble on the floor and they scurry around to get an amendment to throw 20,000 agents ... somewhere on the border in the future, we promise." Sessions said, adding that such promises have been made in the past but not honored.
Sessions and other conservatives have pushed for delaying any pathway to citizenship for 11 million people until the government virtually eliminates illegal border crossings.
But a majority of the Senate repeatedly has repelled such attempts. On Thursday, it voted 54-43 to kill an amendment by Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican, which would have delayed permanent legal status for the 11 million currently undocumented immigrants until the government met strict border enforcement goals.
On Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Senate's immigration bill would save the federal government nearly $900 billion over 20 years as illegal immigrants became legal, taxpaying residents.
A Democratic aide said those projected savings gave senators the leeway to craft such an expensive border security amendment.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who has promised to consider an immigration bill this year, told reporters that the CBO deficit-reduction estimates, if "anywhere close to being accurate, would be a real boon for the country."
While the legislation authorizes the beefed-up security programs, it would be up to Congress in the future to appropriate the funding.
A Senate aide said that the newly legalized residents would not get "green cards" allowing permanent resident status until the border security measures were in place. Gaining permanent resident status would take 10 years under the bill, giving the federal government the time to deploy the added border officers and equipment.
Besides the additional agents and fencing, the measure also calls for employing large amounts of unmanned drones, radars and other surveillance devices to catch or deter illegal crossings.
But the plan brought a harsh reaction from at least one civil liberties and human rights group.
Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, said the huge buildup in agents, surveillance hardware and fencing "is expensive and extreme."
In a telephone interview with Reuters, he expressed fears that adding so many more armed officers would compound problems already being experienced involving fatal shootings on either side of the border.
"The current force on the U.S.-Mexico border is already excessive. What makes matters worse is that there are no checks and balances" on border patrol activities, Ramirez said.
(Additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai and David Lawder; Editing by Fred Barbash)