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Democrats let GOP name their price on immigration

Republicans have finally stumbled upon Democrats' dirty secret on immigration.
The Arizona-Mexico border fence near Naco, Arizona, March 29, 2013. (Photo by Samantha Sais/Reuters)
The Arizona-Mexico border fence near Naco, Arizona, March 29, 2013.

Republicans have finally stumbled upon Democrats' dirty secret on immigration. As long as the GOP is willing to concede a path to citizenship for immigrants residing here illegally, Democrats will meet any demand on border security—no matter how arbitrary and misguided.

It took them long enough. Pro-reform Republicans had urged their colleagues for months to treat the bill as an opportunity to boost enforcement through the roof. This week, Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota took them up on the offer, crafting an amendment to the bipartisan Gang of Eight bill with Democrats' blessing that would roughly double the border patrol from 21,000 agents to 40,000 and build 700 miles of fence, among other reported features. According to The New York Times, the new border agents alone will cost $30 billion. If Republicans want to add an orbiting Death Star or hire every defensive line in the NFL to stand along the border, Democrats would be hard pressed to refuse.

"For people who are concerned about security, once they see what is in this bill, it’s almost overkill,”  Corker said on msnbc Thursday.

Doubling the border patrol hands Republicans a friendly talking point to bring back home to their conservative constituents, regardless of the policy merits. In fact it's so friendly that they've done the same thing several times already. The United States employed about 4,000 border patrol agents in 1993; over 8,000 in 1999; and finally 21,394 in 2012. The government spent $18 billion last year on immigration enforcement, which activists note is more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. And the results look pretty good for border hawks: net illegal immigration from Mexico has plunged to zero in recent years, though a slowed economy helped as well.

The biggest concern going forward may not even come from the border, but from people who overstay legitimate visas: an estimated 40% of all people living in the United States illegally. According to a Congressional Budget Office report this week, the pre-Corker Senate bill is expected to reduce overall illegal immigration by 25% but cut border crossings by an even higher percentage. Those gains would be offset by an increase in other unauthorized residents, “in particular, people overstaying their visas issued under the new programs for temporary workers.” The Corker amendment builds on existing measures in the Senate bill to track visa overstays more aggressively, but the emotional issue lawmakers want to counter with dazzlingly expensive goodies is the border's integrity.

Immigrant advocacy groups are decrying the amendment as expensive and ineffective. Many are already upset with the current level of security, which they complain leads to human rights abuses and diverts migrants to more remote desert crossings where hundreds die every year.

“It doesn't make a whole lot of sense outside of political calculation,” Christian Ramirez, Human Rights director at the Southern Border Communities Coalition, said in an interview. “The number of border apprehensions is down, net illegal immigration has plateaued, San Diego and El Paso are the safest cities in the United States and we have the largest law enforcement agency in the U.S. already in place at the border.”

Related: Can the Tea Party stop immigration reform?

The amendment's saving grace for reformers is that it heads off a rival proposal from Republican John Cornyn of Texas that would block a path to citizenship for immigrants living here illegally unless the federal government showed it could apprehend 90% of all border crossers. And many groups are willing to let Republicans break the bank if they avoid changes to the Gang of Eight's core legalization element.

“It's not smart policy or a smart use of taxpayer resources and forming a human chain along the Southern border isn't really the American way,” Marshall Fitz, Director of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress, told msnbc. “But on the other hand, there is a political reality here that can't be ignored.”

There are signs that they're getting their money's worth. Already Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who voted against moving the Gang of Eight bill to the floor for debate, has announced the amendment would bring him back into the fold. And Marco Rubio of Florida, who threatened to vote against his own bill last month without new border measures, enthusiastically praised the plan.

But some supporters are concerned that the bipartisan group of senators is making an error on tactical grounds and not just policy ones. Conservative House Republicans, the hardest group to wrangle behind reform, have long boasted that their own legislation will be tougher than the Senate plan and may find the bar set too high to propose a reasonable counteroffer.

“They gave away the store short-term to get out of the Senate. The problem is they have to turn attention to the House now,” one Democratic strategist working to pass immigration reform told msnbc. “But something like this is only going to make the House Republicans demand even more punitive efforts."

Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, said he's worried that with border resources already cranked up to 11, the new price on the right might be enforcement measures patterned after Arizona's SB 1070. That bill, which ended up limited by a Supreme Court decision, deputized local police to demand suspected immigration violators prove their legal status. Already the House Judiciary Committee is set to advance the SAFE Act on partisan lines, a bill that would criminalize undocumented immigrants and encourage states to bring their resources to bear on enforcement.

“I think the Senate Republicans are hoping that the dramatic increase in agents and fencing will wow the House,” he said. “I suspect that may turn out to be wishful thinking.”