A huge increase in border security spending was the key to getting Republicans onboard with the immigration bill now making its way through the Senate. The bill is set to pass by the end of this week.
Fifteen Republicans agreed to support an eventual path to citizenship for millions of people in the country illegally — thanks to billions of dollars in new spending. In fact, the spending increase is so big that even those who specialize in border security are wondering where it came from.
Think border security and you picture a Border Patrol agent next to a fence. So that's where the Senate went — more agents and more fencing. But not just a few hundred or even a few thousand more agents: The Senate voted to nearly double the number of Border Patrol agents from 21,000 to almost 40,000. Michael Nicley, former chief of the Border Patrol's busy Tucson Sector, doesn't know how lawmakers came up with that number.
"There's absolutely no studies that have any number like the 20,000. There's nobody in the Border Patrol that I'm aware of at any level that have requested that sort of a buildup," he says. "And to simply throw 20,000 new Border Patrol agents at the border is not the solution, in my opinion."
Mark Krikorian heads the Center for Immigration Studies, a restrictionist immigration think tank. He says the senators "just made this number up."
"They just pulled it out of a hat and figured it would sound really impressive," he says.
Krikorian doesn't believe the new hiring surge will ever happen. It would be too hard to find qualified agents, he says, and too expensive. Even if it does happen, Krikorian argues that more resources should be spent elsewhere.
"The real bang for the buck that would come from enforcement would come from measures inside the country: work site enforcement, or better screening for visitors or better fraud prevention," he says.
But that's a harder sell, Krikorian says, than more Border Patrol agents or another focus of the security increase: more fencing. The bill calls for turning 350 miles of vehicle barriers outside urban areas into the same pedestrian fencing now found inside border cities.
Immigrant-rights activists met in Tucson Monday to denounce the bill, including members of the organization No More Deaths. Sarah Launius, spokeswoman for the group, says more fencing will just push crossers farther into the deadly desert. Launius says the bill is pure politics, focused inside the Beltway.
"Comprehensive immigration reform has turned into a jobs bill for defense contractors and the Department Of Homeland Security, with very little recognition of what it means for the prosperity and the well-being of border communities," she says.
The bill calls for spending an estimated $30 billion over the next 10 years on agents and fencing, including more than $3 billion for a high-tech border surveillance plan. The plan has specific requirements for more drones, sensors and cameras, despite a lack of evidence that they're effective.
Even the amendment's sponsor, Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, told MSNBC last Thursday effectiveness wasn't his main concern.
"For people who are concerned about border security, once they see what is in this bill, it's almost overkill," the senator said.
What the new border security provisions do, everyone agrees, is give Republicans political cover to pass the rest of the immigration bill. But the legislation still has to pass the House. If it has a chance there, it's likely that members will demand even more border security.