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Immigration reform promises border security. Prove it, Republicans say. (+video)

The Senate immigration reform bill aims to apprehend 90 percent of potential border-crossers in high-risk areas within five years after passage, but Republicans question the plan.

By Staff writer / May 7, 2013

Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida arrives at the Senate chamber for a vote on Monday. One of the immigration bill’s authors, Senator Rubio has already acknowledged that the bill will face a tough road to passage if the border security elements are not improved.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Washington

Senate conservatives in a hearing Tuesday took aim at a key border security element of the immigration reform bill, peppering the leaders of federal agencies charged with securing the nation’s borders to try to firm up what, exactly, counts as a secure border.

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As a Senate committee begins amending the bill this week, the concern among senators such as Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma will likely become an even greater part of the immigration reform debate – and perhaps the shape of the final legislation – in the weeks to come.

The reform bill’s bipartisan sponsors have vowed to pursue more Republican support for the measure. As they offer amendments, outspoken Republicans like Senator Coburn are outlining exactly what it would take to get them on board.

To pass an immigration reform measure in the GOP-lead House, Coburn pointed out at Tuesday's hearing, “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.”

“If, in fact, we really want this to happen, we have to start addressing this now,” the iconoclastic Sooner and the committee’s top GOP member said. “And you can't have any false observations on this. The political reality is the American people want to know the border's controlled.”

To address such concerns, the bipartisan Senate bill sets a target: The US will, with the help of $4.5 billion in new border security funding, turn back or apprehend 90 percent of potential border-crossers in high-risk areas within five years after passage.

If that level of control isn’t in place within five years, the bill authorizes an additional $2 billion in funding and requires a group of border-state elected officials and community leaders to certify when the border is secure. None of the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the US will be allowed to obtain permanent residency without a certified, secure southern border, the bill says.

But Republicans aren't convinced that the Department of Homeland Security can accurately confirm that 90 percent figure. Several senators asked witnesses at the hearing: How can DHS credibly estimate how many people are trying to cross the border? Moreover, they added, why, exactly, is the bill staking so much on a seemingly arbitrary number?

Asked why 90 percent was the appropriate figure for a safe, secure America, US Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher said, “Basically it's because ... it's an ‘A.’ If you're going to set a goal for border security and national security, anything less than, at a minimum, 90 percent would be untenable in terms of a goal.”

In addition, what vexes those like Republican Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Rand Paul of Kentucky is not any particular number but that the legislation doesn’t specify much of anything to get to the 90 percent threshold.

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