* Money to fund more border agents and unmanned “drones”
* Indian government protested visa fees in legislation
By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON, Aug 12 (Reuters) - The U.S. 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.
Final legislative action came as the Senate passed the bill on a voice vote, one day after the House of Representatives interrupted a six-week recess to pass the bill.
It now goes to President Barack Obama, who had requested the $600 million the measure provides and is expected to sign it into law.
Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat and one of only two senators present for debate of the bill in the 100-member chamber, said the measure would give the Obama administration the resources it needs to “combat drug smugglers, gun runners, human traffickers, money launderers and other organized criminals that seek to do harm” along the border.
The money 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.
Schumer said he hoped passage of the bill would help break a deadlock in the Senate over broader immigration reforms. But that appeared unlikely in the increasingly partisan atmosphere ahead of the November congressional elections.
All 435 House seats and 37 Senate seats are up for grabs on Nov. 2 in an election that will determine whether Obama’s fellow Democrats maintain their majority control in 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 by imposing higher visa fees on some Indian technology companies operating in the United States, prompting a protest from the government of India.
Senate aides said the Indian companies had been targeted because they take advantage of a U.S. law to import a high percentage of their workers from abroad. They said four Indian companies would be affected: Tata (TCS.BO), Infosys (INFY.BO), Wipro (WIPR.BO) and Mahindra Satyam SATY.BO.
“Though the need of the U.S. government to strengthen their border security is understandable, it is inexplicable to our companies to bear the cost of such a highly discriminatory law,” India’s Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma wrote to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk this week.
The $600 million 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 new special immigration enforcement agents, investigators, and intelligence analysts.
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.
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.
But immigration advocates say Republicans have inflated concerns about illegal immigration to put Democrats on the defensive ahead of the elections.
Violence along the border has escalated in recent years, but Alan Bersin, commissioner for the Customs and Border Protection agency, said recently illegal crossings have begun to decline while seizures of weapons and drugs have gone up.
There are about 11 million illegal immigrants believed to be living in the United States.
Editing by Vicki Allen