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GOP spotlights border security as immigration fight looms

With a huge bipartisan Senate immigration bill prepared for a first round of legislative edits this week, senators on Tuesday questioned top national security officials about whether the proposal’s efforts to secure the country’s borders can be achieved – or if they’re sufficient at all.

Homeland Security officials testifying at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee praised the comprehensive approach taken by the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” and said the proposed policy would guard against a “third wave” of illegal immigration into the United States.

“We are confident that it’s the right formula,” David Heyman, Assistant Secretary for Policy for the Department of Homeland Security, told the panel.

Robert Galbraith / Reuters

Demonstrators carry signs during an immigration rally on May Day in the Mission District in San Francisco, California May 1, 2013.

But, as the bill’s allies and foes prepare to amend the legislation this week, Republicans on the committee said that the bill will languish in Congress if its security measures are not substantially strengthened.

Sen. Rand Paul, an influential Tea Party-affiliated lawmaker whose verdict on the final bill could help sway undecided Republicans, warned that without beefing up the measure’s security proposals, the massive legislation will fail – if not in the Senate, then in the GOP-controlled House.

“I am worried that the bill before us won’t pass,” said the Kentucky senator. “I want to be constructive in making the bill strong enough that conservatives – myself included and conservative Republicans in the House – will vote for this, because I think immigration reform is something we should do.”

Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee, said that the bill’s criteria for defining a “secure border” must be dramatically more specific before the measure’s proponents can hope to see it pass.

“If we’re going to get immigration reform through – if you’re going to get it through the House – we’re going to have to do a whole lot more on what is the definition of a controlled border than what is in this bill,” Coburn said.

As written, the legislation requires the Department of Homeland Security to achieve an “effectiveness rate” of 90 percent per fiscal year in the most high-risk areas of the southern border, meaning that nine of 10 individuals who attempt to cross the border illegally are either apprehended or turned back by border patrol personnel.  (Coburn argues that the calculation fails to take into account illegal immigrants whose entry is not detected by security forces.)

If that requirement is not met within five years, a commission made up of border-state governors and experts will be convened to help achieve it; failure to meet the goal would eventually delay eligibility for undocumented immigrants who have achieved probationary legal status to apply for green cards.

Capitol Hill lawmakers express hope for the Senate's immigration overhaul framework.

The notion of such “triggers” is unsavory to some pro-immigrant groups who worry that stricter border-security criteria could severely delay or even completely torpedo the bill’s “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants.

But, with opposition mounting from groups like Jim DeMint’s Heritage Foundation, Republican supporters of the measure say that stringent border requirements must be bolstered to woo skittish conservatives to support comprehensive reform.

“A path to citizenship is in this bill and it’s based on the fact that the border’s going to be controlled,” said Coburn. “And if in fact the American people can’t trust that the border’s controlled, you’re not going to be able to pass this bill.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a key conservative architect of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” measure that will be marked up in the Senate Judiciary Committee later this week, has pledged to help improve the border security “triggers” embedded in the legislation.

That markup is scheduled to begin Thursday.

Related story: Conservative group pegs cost of immigration reform at $6.3T

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