Immigration Reform 2013: With the So-Called "Border Surge," Senate Reaches "Grand Bargain"

When Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) demanded to make the path to citizenship for country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants contingent upon the government achieving a 90% apprehension rate along the border, many thought we were bound for yet another Congressional failure.

But after heated debate on the Senate floor, it looks as though the immigration overhaul bill has legs, and could get through the Senate with the 70-vote show of force Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been looking for. After a week of lobbying for patience, if not support, Schumer has managed to fight the immigration bill out of the grave and on its way to what looks like a filibuster-proof majority. How? The "border surge."

Hours before both sides were set to leave the negotiating table, the breakthrough moment came when the Schumer camp realized that the $1 trillion in deficit reduction over the next two decades predicted by the Congressional Budget Office would give enough cover to funnel billions towards border security to meet Republican demands. So Schumer gave Hoeven, Corker, and their supporters, a deal they couldn't refuse: a staggering $30 billion for what is now being called a "border surge."

The Grand Bargain:

The new border security policy has been the most controversial part of a much larger immigration reform bill — the first in a quarter century. The Schumer proposal throws out the arbitrary and impossible-to-measure 90% trigger, and instead establishes several specific conditions that would need to be met before any of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants became eligible for the green card process.

The strictest requirements includes the completion of the 700 miles of fencing along the border in compliance with 1996 and 2006 laws, the full implementation of E-verify, and most notably a border surge of 20,000 men and $3.2 billion in border-tracking technology, including radars, scanners, and at least 18 unarmed aerial drones.

Once out of the question, the Congressional Budget Office report that estimated that the legislation would reduce federal deficits by nearly $200 billion over the next decade was the spark for this compromise. "We didn't know we had the dollars; we have them now," Schumer said.

"We have practically militarized the border," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Gang of Eight, said. "If this amendment holds together and it passes as currently constructed, border security will have been achieved at a level that nobody would have thought possible a month ago."

Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Az.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), both in the "Gang of Eight," discuss the new policy with NPR:

The Votes:

The "border surge" is expected to secure over a dozen Republican "yes" votes, including Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who has decided to switch his vote because the new border security provisions "will restore the people's trust in our ability to control the border."

In announcing his support of the agreement, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) added: "We are investing resources in the border that have never been invested before. The American people have asked us, if we pass an immigration bill on the Senate floor, that we do everything we can to secure the border."

The bill already has support of most of the 54 Democrats in the Senate, and the "Gang of Eight" Republicans. Although some more conservative senators, including Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), called the new border security deal weak and costly, it is believed that the magic number of 70 is within reach. 

The White House's Covert Hand:

While Obama has largely appeared removed from the negotiations, only stating his support that a bill be passed, his political absence should not be perceived as the White House staying out of the policy. On Capitol Hill, the Dirksen Building houses the White House's covert war room, where it is trying to quietly secure passage.

"We are trying hard not to be heavy handed about what we are doing," said Cecilia Muñoz, the White House's point person on immigration. "We have folks who know the Senate really well, who know the players, who have been through this before so they know exactly what Senate staff needs," Ms. Muñoz said. "We are deeply, deeply engaged."

Recognizing that public White House involvement would end any hope of a bipartisan bill, the administration is privately providing both sides with technical information and manpower to draft amendments, while publicly allowing those same Senators to bash the president.

"President Obama's concept of engaging Congress is giving a speech that nobody up here listens to," said a spokesman for Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl.). "If passing legislation is like making sausage, then this White House is like a bunch of vegetarians."

A Message to the House:

Immigration reform is critical to both turning around Obama's scandal-plagued second term, and repairing the GOP's image with Hispanics and the country as a whole. This confluence of political interests is why the "Gang of Eight" wants the 70-vote win; they're concerned not with just with passage of the bill, but with passing it with a large enough margin to send a message to the House.

After the collapse of the Farm Bill in the House, which was approved 66-27 in the Senate last week, many Senate leaders recognize that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) cannot deliver their party's votes when needed, so only through the overwhelming passage of this bill in the upper chamber can the Senate underscore its importance.

The House is debating more limited and conservative proposals, but a 70-plus win in the Senate could compel them to follow suit. Speaker Boehner, however, recognizes the lack of unity in his caucus and is trying to lower expectations: "Regardless of what the Senate does, the House is going to work its will."

Finishing Touches:

While the "Gang of Eight" still needs to resolve the issue of access to government benefits, the agreement on border security sets the bill up for a successful vote next week. "Today," Schumer said from the Senate floor Thursday, "is a breakthrough day."