Thursday, November 23, 2006

Border Fence

Bush signs bill authorizing fence along Mexican border

WASHINGTON - President Bush signed into law Thursday a measure that authorizes 700 miles of new fencing along the southern border just as his party is trying to highlight immigration security in a handful of battleground congressional races.

Republican House leaders in particular are hoping that the bill-signing so close to the Nov. 7 election will help incumbent lawmakers in such states as Arizona, where the GOP has tried to make immigration a decisive issue.

"Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate opposed the Secure Fence Act, ignoring the demands of the American people for a secure border," Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said minutes after the bill was signed. The measure passed the House 283 to 138 with 64 Democrats voting yes and 131 no. Six Republicans voted no.

Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., countered Hastert's statement. He called the new law "nothing more than a cynical, vain attempt by Republicans to try to show some accomplishment on border security where they can claim none."

Bush recited a list of border security steps taken by his administration, including increasing the number of border patrol agents, deploying thousands of National Guard troops to the border and adding new detention beds for illegal immigrants caught trying to cross into the U.S.

"Unfortunately, the United States has not been in complete control of its borders for decades and, therefore, illegal immigration has been on the rise," Bush said during the signing ceremony in the Roosevelt Room.

But even as he signed the measure, Bush made it clear that he hasn't given up on a broader overhaul of the nation's immigration policy.

He said the fence bill is "an important step in our nation's efforts to secure our borders."

But, he added, "we have more to do."

Bush reiterated his support for a plan to better help employers determine whether they are hiring legal workers and for a new guest worker program for future immigrant labor.

And he also said that the problem of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States must be solved, with a solution lying somewhere "between granting an automatic pass to citizenship for every illegal immigrant and a program of mass deportation."

The Secure Fence Act says the homeland security secretary "shall provide for least two layers of reinforced fencing, the installation of additional physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors." The bill specifies exactly where the fencing should be built.

"The same critics who didn't want to build the fence are trying to raise the specter that there's some way to get out of there after we detailed in iron-tight language where it's going to go," said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., a key fighter for the border fence.

But a Sept. 29 letter from Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to key congressional committee leaders casts doubt on whether the fence will be built exactly where the law says it will.

The legislation, the letter says, "should require the Secretary of Homeland Security to put fencing and physical barriers in areas of high illegal entry into the United States, yet allow flexibility to use alternative physical infrastructure and technology when fencing is ineffective or impractical."

The homeland security appropriations bill calls for the establishment of "a security barrier along the border of the United States of fencing and vehicle barriers where practicable and other forms of tactical infrastructure." The appropriation bill includes $1.2 billion to carry that out.

"If you're going to do - and we need to - better security of our ports of entry, then you have to look at all of them," said Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., who voted against the fence bill. "You have to look at the limited resources you have, and you have to be smarter about the whole system, not just one place to make a political point."

Homeland security officials believe they will be able to do some fencing and some alternative border control.

"There's no question that traditional fencing will be a key part of our strategy at the border," said homeland security spokesman Russ Knocke. But, Knocke added, "we are optimistic that we will also have some of the flexibility we need to move ahead with our overall strategy."

Estimates of how much the fence will cost range from $2 billion to $8 billion, with most experts saying that 700 miles of fencing would cost about $3.2 billion. The $1.2 billion, House officials say, was meant to be a down payment on the fence.

It's unclear whether DHS can first use the $1.2 billion for some of the "virtual fence" options that many in the administration prefer. And, if and when the money necessary is appropriated, there's no telling how many years it would take to get the fencing constructed.

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