WASHINGTON - The Senate made significant changes to the immigration bill under its consideration Friday that will expand the legislation to more than 1,100 pages and add roughly $50 billion in costs.
Supporters think that, with those changes, the measure will attract broad bipartisan support - maybe more than 70 yes votes - when the bill comes up for a vote next week. Such a margin would be a notable feat in the usually divided chamber.
"We're not at 70 yet, but we're gaining support and this ... helps a great deal," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the lead negotiators on the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Friday that senators would begin voting Monday evening on a single amendment that scoops up several issues, including plans to spend $30 billion fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border with 20,000 additional border agents and new drone technology. It will also include an agreement on how much eligible immigrants will be required to pay in fines and back taxes before they are able to earn green cards.
"Opposition of a small group is not going to stop this bill from moving forward," Reid said, as he vowed to complete work on the legislation by next Friday, before the start of the July 4 recess.
But several immigrant-advocacy groups warned Friday that they may withdraw support for the bill if they decide that the changes would adversely affect Latino communities along the border or make it too costly for some immigrants to earn American citizenship.
Fernando Garcia, whose group, Border Network for Human Rights, represents small border towns in Texas and New Mexico, said he was especially concerned with plans to double the size of the U.S. Border Patrol.
"We're going to have one of the most militarized borders in the world," Garcia said. "In South Korea, they have 40,000 personnel deployed at the border, and we're either going to be ahead of, or right behind, that. But the difference is that we don't have a war between nations. This is unreasonable."
The bipartisan Gang of Eight senators who wrote the bill also agreed Friday to add a provision from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that would bar the U.S. government from paying federal welfare benefits to illegal immigrants. The bill also would bar the Social Security Administration from counting taxes paid by illegal immigrants who posted earnings by using fake or stolen Social Security numbers. Finally, immigrants seeking a green card would be required to pay five years of federal back taxes, including any employment taxes - Social Security and Medicare - owed by the applicant.
The changes fulfill the wishes of members of both parties who wanted to include some punitive measures for illegal immigrants seeking permanent status.
"In South Korea, they have 40,000 personnel deployed at the border, and we're either going to be ahead of, or right behind, that. But the difference is that we don't have a war between nations. This is unreasonable."
Fernando Garcia, Border Network for Human Rights