WASHINGTON — Legislation authorizing 700 miles of fencing along the southern U.S. border was signed into law by President Bush on Thursday in a ceremony that underscored Republican divisions over immigration policy and left unanswered whether the entire barrier would be built.
Flanked by House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and other Republicans who blocked his bid for a broader overhaul of immigration law, Bush used the opportunity to push back. "We have more to do," the president said during the low-key event.
Promises by GOP leaders to alter the law when Congress reconvenes after the Nov. 7 election -- in addition to a lack of funding set aside for the fence -- have cast doubt on how much of it ultimately will be built. Changes to the measure would probably include giving local governments and private property owners the chance to raise objections over the fencing's location.
Bush did have words of praise for the fence bill, calling it "an important step toward immigration reform." But he made clear that he opposed the enforcement-only position taken by the House and favored instead the approach embraced by the Senate: tougher border security and work-site enforcement combined with a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for some of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday October 30, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Border fence law: A map of the U.S.-Mexico border in Friday's Section A, accompanying an article about President Bush's signing of a bill authorizing fencing there, should have had a scale of 100 miles, not five miles.
Bush said he looked forward to working with Congress on finding a "rational middle ground" between granting automatic citizenship to illegal immigrants and launching "a program of mass deportation."
He also said, "We must reduce pressure on our border by creating a temporary worker plan."
Some GOP leaders had pressed a reluctant White House for the signing ceremony so that as November's election nears, Republicans could promote the fence bill as an accomplishment, party aides said.
"House and Senate Republicans ... will stop the hemorrhaging along our nation's borders," said a statement by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
The House Republican leadership, in particular, views the fence not only as a needed security improvement but also as a powerful political statement that will win support for the party. Other Republicans, however, worry that it could cost the GOP support among Latino voters.
Mexican officials have harshly denounced the fence plan, and they continued their criticism Thursday.
"Walls don't resolve anything; it's a grave error," said President-elect Felipe Calderon, who was traveling in Canada.
Calderon, due to be sworn in Dec. 1, added: "It would be more useful to the progress of our countries to build a kilometer of highways in Zacatecas or Michoacan than to build 10 kilometers of wall in Arizona."
Mexican President Vicente Fox termed the measure "an embarrassment for the United States." Commenting during a visit to Cancun, Fox said: "It's an example of the inability of the United States to see the issue of immigration as one of shared responsibility."
The fence's advocates in Congress have countered that their first responsibility is to ensure the integrity of the U.S. border. There are currently about 90 miles of fencing along the southern border, including 14 miles in the San Diego area.
The new law contains detailed instructions for "at least two layers of reinforced fencing" around Tecate and Calexico, Calif., and across vast stretches of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. But a letter written by Hastert and Frist to other congressional leaders when the measure cleared Congress on Sept. 29 detailed changes they wanted made to it when lawmakers returned to Washington in mid-November.
Hastert and Frist indicated they wanted to provide flexibility on where the fencing should go and on whether parts of it would take a physical or virtual form -- potentially using sensors, cameras and unmanned aerial vehicles in place of reinforced metal.
Their letter called for requiring the Department of Homeland Security to erect fencing in areas of frequent illegal entry, but also for giving the agency the option "to use alternative physical infrastructure and technology when fencing is ineffective or impractical."
Also, Hastert and Frist want to require agency officials to consult with state and local governments, including Native American tribes, on the exact placement of fencing and other infrastructure, such as vehicle barriers.
Money poses another potential problem for the fencing. Cost estimates range from $3 million to $10 million per mile, for a total price tag of at least $2.1 billion -- and perhaps much higher -- before maintenance costs. The bill Bush signed, while authorizing the fencing, includes no money for it.
A separate budget measure for the Homeland Security Department provides $1.2 billion for border security that Republicans have referred to as the "first installment" for the fencing. But that money can be allocated as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff sees fit.