Washington -– What do a historic immigration bill and Stratford-based helicopter-maker Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. have in common?
Plenty, it seems.
As the Senate finished debate last month on a bill that would give 11 million undocumented immigrants an eventual path to citizenship, Republicans proposed a $38 billion amendment aimed at strengthening border controls and luring GOP votes for the bill.
The amendment would increase the number of border patrol officers by nearly 20,000. It is also a boon to the nation’s defense contractors, mandating the spending of billions of dollars on light helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, radar and other high-tech systems.
The amendment also calls for the purchase of five new Black Hawk helicopters, made by Sikorsky, at a cost of about $17 million each. It also requires the refurbishment of 10 other Black Hawks by the company.
Sikorsky did not return requests for comment.
The amendment makes a run around Congress’ ban on earmarks, or special projects, by saying that the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, could choose to buy other types of technology as long as she notifies lawmakers of her intent.
But Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, an anti-spending group, said Napolitano is not likely to seek alternatives. He also said the amendment has made defense companies the latest players to enter the fight over immigration reform.
“Now companies like Sikorsky are winners in the bill,” Ellis said. “That’s pretty much a guaranteed paycheck for the helicopters because [Napolitano] is very unlikely to pursue different options, and you can bet that the companies that are winners in the bill are going to fight to stay winners.”
The boon to defense companies occurred because the authors of the immigration amendment, Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., incorporated a Border Patrol wish list into their legislation.
They sold it as a way to make sure the border is secure before a single undocumented immigrant is given legal status.
Corker said the amendment would put in place “the toughest border security measures we have ever had in this nation.”
He spoke of “tangible triggers” that would be in place before any immigrant receives legal status. Besides the jump in the number of Border Patrol officers and $4.5 million spent on helicopters and other technologies, the amendment would require the construction of an additional 350 miles of fencing along the Rio Grande, a fully implemented exit and entrance visa program and a fully deployed E-Verify system that allows employers to check the status of workers.
“These elements are all elements Republicans have pushed for for years,” Corker said.
The amendment was approved June 24 on a 67-27 vote. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., supported the amendment, just as they did a final 1,100-page immigration bill the Senate approved a few days later.
While some immigration reform advocates swallowed their displeasure at spending billions to beef up border security, Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We DREAM, an immigrant youth advocacy group, said she is “outraged” at the “border surge” amendment.
“It’s really an insult to put the focus back on that,” she said.
Now it’s up to the GOP-led House to consider immigration reform.
But House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he won’t put the Senate bill on the floor, placing consideration of a comprehensive bill in that chamber in doubt.
Immigrant advocates, however, hope to convince Republicans that opposition to the immigration bill is bad politics for the GOP, as offended Hispanic and Asian voters are increasingly prone to voting for Democrats.
To begin their campaign in the House, about 500 “Dreamers” including more than a dozen from Connecticut, plan to come to Washington Tuesday to stage a mock citizenship ceremony.