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4 Senators Get Firsthand Look At Border Security


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. There is new momentum for a major overhaul of the nation's immigration laws. As usual, it's just a matter of closing the deal. Among those trying to hash out a compromise is the so-called Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators. Yesterday, four of them took time out of their congressional recess to visit Arizona for a firsthand look at border security.

Arizona Senator John McCain set up the visit. He was joined by fellow Republican Jeff Flake and Democratic Senators Charles Schumer and Michael Bennet. Reporters were not invited along for the tour, though the senators did hold a news conference afterwards. Politico's Anna Palmer was there and joins us now from Nogales, Arizona. Good morning.

ANNA PALMER: Good morning.

GREENE: So at the surface here, this seems like a pretty standard political photo opportunity for these lawmakers, but was it any more than that? I mean what did the senators say they saw out there?

PALMER: Yeah, it definitely was kind of the typical meet the kind of area and see what is happening in terms of on the ground for border security. But they actually had a little bit of fireworks there. The senators said that on their private tour they actually saw a woman scale an 18-foot fence before she was apprehended trying to get into the U.S.

GREENE: Wow. So if you're talking about the subject of border security, I mean in real time they actually saw something happening.

PALMER: Absolutely. They also went on an aerial tour, kind of got to see the terrain. All of the senators said that - particularly for Senator Schumer and Senator Michael Bennet, who had never been to the border before, that being there just showed the vastness of the country and how important it was to actually get more technology and money to the border.

GREENE: Anna, this Gang of Eight, I mean this bipartisan group of lawmakers, they're trying to show that they can work together and come to some sort of agreement on immigrant reform, which has been a really tough issue for years now. Senator Schumer, the Democrat from New York, said they're 90 percent there, getting close to an agreement. What is keeping them apart and how much of it is border security?

PALMER: Well, border security has never been an issue that was going to be one of the sticking points. It's something that conservatives point to as being very important to them. Certainly it throws some red meat to their base, you know, if they do end up voting for this kind of final package, which is going to have a lot of things - like a pathway to citizenship that some of their, you know, kind of staunchest conservatives are going to be opposed to.

But the real issue has been over workforce visas for low skilled workers. It's a program that kind of really upset the balance in 2007 the last time immigration reform had a real serious go. And last week we saw that actually stall. The senators hoped that they would have a package kind of agreed to so that their staff could get to writing it before they went on this two-week break.

GREENE: That sticking point is really dividing both the labor and business communities who of course have a lot of influence on both sides. It sounds like this photo op kind of got the senators away from that particular battle and talking about something else. But at least appearing together, I guess.

PALMER: They certainly were giving a united front. I mean both the Democrats and the Republicans struck a positive tone. Senator Schumer even said that he still thought that they would make the early April deadline so that they would have a bill to be put forward when they came back. That's a big stretch in terms of actually seeing that get into action, having legislative language on a lot of the details.

I mean even on border security, something that they agree on, the senators wouldn't go into any details of what the metrics would be, how much money they're talking about. So there still seems like there's a lot of the fine print that they're still kind of hashing out.

GREENE: And I know on immigration reform, I mean they've gotten close in Washington before and then things have kind of stalled. Is this April deadline do or die?

PALMER: It's not necessarily do or die. Certainly for what their timeframe is, right, the point for all of these senators, if they're going to actually try to take a vote - which will definitely be controversial, probably for both sides, because it will be a compromise, so neither the Democrats or the Republicans are going to come out and say this was the biggest victory ever. But they want to do it as far away from the Election Day 2014 as they can.

So the goal really was to try to get, you know, a bill out in April, try to get it onto the floor a couple weeks thereafter, and then really try to put a final product through Congress before the August recess.

GREENE: Have this done before they get to the political season.

PALMER: Exactly.

GREENE: Anna Palmer, thanks so much for talking to us.

PALMER: Thanks a lot.

GREENE: She's a reporter for Politico and she joined us from Nogales, Arizona. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.