"If in fact the American people can't trust that the border is controlled you're not going to be able to pass this bill," said Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "You're going to have to do a lot more on border control."
Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., voiced similar concerns at a committee hearing to examine border security provisions of the bill, which is to face its first votes on Thursday before a different panel, the Judiciary Committee. Amendments are expected to be offered during the Judiciary session to boost the border provisions of the bill, which was introduced last month by four Democratic and four Republican senators.
One of the legislation's authors, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has already acknowledged that the bill will face a tough road to passage if the border security elements are not improved.
Paul, a tea party favorite who's voiced support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul, insisted his goal in raising questions about the bill is to make it better so it can pass not just the Democratic-controlled Senate but also the Republican-run House. He denied that he's out to oppose the bill or slow it down.
"I want to be constructive in making the bill strong enough that conservatives ... will vote for it," Paul said.
"If it's not any stronger than this I don't see it getting through the House," he said.
Echoing concerns raised by a number of Republicans, Paul said that the bill relies too much on setting goals and requiring studies about border security, instead of insisting on actual accomplishments. Under the bill, "You have to have a plan to build a fence, but you don't have to build a fence," he complained.
The bill allocates $5.5 billion for border measures aimed at achieving 100 percent surveillance of the entire border and blocking 90 percent of border crossers and would-be crossers in high-entrance areas.
The Homeland Security Department would have six months to create a new border security plan to achieve the 90 percent effectiveness rate. Also within six months, the department would have to create a plan to identify where new fencing is needed. Once that happens, people living here illegally could begin to apply for a provisional legal status.
If the 90 percent rate isn't achieved within five years, a commission made of border state officials would make recommendations on how to do it.
After 10 years, people with provisional legal status could apply for permanent residency if the new security and fencing plans are operating, a new mandatory employment verification system is in place, and a new electronic exit system is tracking who leaves the country.
Among other things, Rubio has discussed strengthening the "triggers" that require certain steps to be taken before a path to citizenship can begin.
Officials with the Department of Homeland Security testified Tuesday that the U.S.-Mexico border is more secure than ever but they said the provisions in the bill would help them make it even stronger. They praised the pending legislation for directing more resources to the agency for surveillance equipment and for authorizing 3,500 new Border Patrol officers.
The hearing touched briefly on the Boston Marathon bombings, which exposed some failures, including an apparent lack of communication among federal agencies when one of the alleged bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, traveled to Russia last year. A student from Kazakhstan accused of hiding evidence for one of the bombers also was allowed to return to the U.S. in January without a valid student visa.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an author of the immigration bill, said the legislation could be amended to address any such problems. "There are some obvious areas on student visas and humanitarian visas that need to be looked at," he said.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.