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A sweeping immigration policy overhaul appears set to pass the U.S. Senate by the end of the week. A huge increase in border security spending was the key to getting some Republicans on board. That provision won over some 15 senators, who will now also support an eventual path to citizenship for millions of people who are in the country illegally. Coming up, we'll hear from a key House Republican about his reaction to the Senate bill.
First, though, as NPR's Ted Robbins reports, the Senate security spending increase is so big - tens of billions of dollars - that many experts on border security wonder where it came from.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: 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 double the number of Border Patrol agents from 21,000 to nearly 40,000.
Michael Nicely doesn't know how they came up with that number.
MICHAEL NICELY: 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, who have requested that sort of a buildup.
ROBBINS: Nicely is the former chief of the Border Patrol's busy Tucson Sector.
NICELY: And to simply throw 20,000 new Border Patrol agents at the border is not the solution in my opinion.
MARK KRIKORIAN: They just made this number up. They just pulled it out of a hat and figured it would sound really impressive to the yokels.
ROBBINS: Mark Krikorian is head of the Center for Immigration Studies, a restrictionist immigration think tank. He doesn't believe the new hiring surge will ever happen; too hard to find qualified agents and too expensive. Even if it does happen, Krikorian argues that more resources should be spent elsewhere.
KRIKORIAN: The real bang for the buck that would come from enforcement would come from measures inside the country; worksite enforcement or better screening for visitors or better fraud prevention.
ROBBINS: But that's a harder sell says Krikorian, 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. Sarah Launius, with the group No More Deaths, says more fencing will just push crossers further into the deadly desert. Launius says the bill is pure politics focused inside the Beltway.
SARAH LAUNIUS: 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.
ROBBINS: The bill calls for spending an estimated $30 billion over the next 10 years on agents and fencing, including more than three billion for a high-tech border surveillance plan. That plan has specific requirements for more drones, sensors, and cameras, despite a lack of evidence they're effective.
Even the amendment's sponsor, Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker, told MSNBC effectiveness wasn't his main concern.
SENATOR BOB CORKER: For people who are concerned about border security, once they see what is in this bill it's almost overkill.
ROBBINS: 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 members will demand even more border security.
Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.
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