August 10, 2010 / 7:57 PM / 10 years ago

US House passes $600 million border security bill

* Senate must still give bill final approval

* Indian companies upset over higher visa fees

(Recasts, adds Indian company comment, poll, details)

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON, Aug 10 (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Tuesday to bolster security along the Mexican border, grappling with the flow of illegal immigrants that has become an explosive issue ahead of November congressional elections.

Democrats hope the measure will be a first step toward comprehensive immigration reform. They ignored Indian outsourcing companies’ protests against higher visa fees, which would be imposed as part of the bill to finance the plan.

The Obama administration has urged passage of the $600 million program. Republicans also have been calling for a stronger border controls as well as a crackdown on illegal immigration. The bill passed the House on a voice vote.

But because of a legal technicality, it will have to return to the Senate, even though that chamber has approved an identical measure, before President Barack Obama can sign it into law. The Senate, however, is in its summer recess.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, said it was hoped the bill could be passed by “consent” by the end of this week. Such a process would mean the entire Senate would not need to return to Washington, so long as party leaders agree.

The money will fund 1,000 new border patrol agents and 250 customs and border protection officers at points of entry along the southwest border, advocates say. It will also pay for over 250 special immigration enforcement agents, investigators, and intelligence analysts.

BORDER DRONES

The money would also expand the use of unmanned drones to monitor border activities, improve communications among federal agencies and help fund investigations of illegal drug activity at the border.

“This funding is urgently needed to counter the pressures our law enforcement agencies and our border communities currently face,” Representative David Price, a Democrat, said.

Obama and many fellow Democrats back a comprehensive reform of immigration policy to tighten border security but also allow the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants working in the United States to get on a path to citizenship.

But House Republicans accused Democrats of bringing up the bill for political gain before the November elections. Representative Jerry Lewis, a Republican, also said it would be paid for by “questionable” taxes on specific companies.

The bill funds the new measures by raising visa application fees on a select group of companies that operate in the United States. Schumer last week said they were targeted because they take advantage of U.S. law to import workers from abroad.

Senate aides said four companies from India would be affected: Tata (TCS.BO), Infosys (INFY.BO), Wipro (WIPR.BO) and Mahindra Satyam SATY.BO.

In India, the chief executive of one of the companies said the fees would be passed on to customers. Infosys Technologies’ chief executive Senapathy Gopalakrishnan said he felt “sad and disheartened” by the bill.

Some immigration advocates blasted lawmakers for passing the bill, saying the southern border had never been safer.

“Republicans have falsely and in bad faith used border security to whip up their base in the run up to the fall elections ... Unfortunately Democrats have taken the bait and fallen into the trap,” said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, a Washington-based network of community organizations.

A poll released on Tuesday said over two thirds of residents feel secure living in U.S. border communities despite the bloody drug violence raging on the Mexican side.

The Border Network poll said that 67.1 percent of those surveyed in 10 border cities felt safe in their communities, which were scattered across four U.S. states. (Reporting by Susan Cornwell, editing by Vicki Allen and Alan Elsner)

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