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On Eve of a Vote, GOP on Both Sides of Fence

September 14, 2006|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Wednesday launched a renewed bid to stiffen border security and rally voters, unveiling a bill that would mandate construction of 700 miles of fencing in highly populated areas along the U.S. border with Mexico.

The House is to vote today on the "Secure Fence Act," which requires the Department of Homeland Security to prevent "all unlawful entries" into the United States, pushes for border agents to use greater force, and calls for more border surveillance using cameras, ground sensors and satellites.

The new bill is the first of several tightly focused border-security measures House leaders say they will introduce in coming weeks. It represents the latest effort by House Republicans to build momentum for an enforcement-only approach, which they say -- despite objections from the Senate and President Bush -- is the best way to repair the nation's immigration policies.

"House Republicans believe we must address the immediate need to secure our borders," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and author of the new bill.

The bill would require at least two layers of reinforced fencing, along with vehicle barriers, roads, lighting, cameras and sensors, around the California towns of Tecate and Calexico and in border areas of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Surveillance cameras in those areas would have to be in place by May 31, 2007; fence construction would have to be completed a year later.

The bill also calls for a study on constructing a state-of-the-art barrier system along the northern border with Canada.

The House is expected to approve the legislation. When it goes to the Senate, though, it will present a challenge for the bipartisan group that backs the chamber's broader approach to immigration.

Senate legislation approved in May calls for allowing illegal immigrants to gain legal status and creating a guest worker program in addition to increasing enforcement, in part by building a 370-mile fence along the border.

Senators will have to decide whether to support the new House bill and risk losing any leverage they have to get the House to support other measures, such as the guest worker program. If they vote against the House bill, they risk being tarred as weak on security in an election year.

Some conservative Republicans have long supported the get-tough approach. One of them, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), responded to the new House measure by calling on Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to embrace the House approach and declare the Senate bill dead.

Referring to the congressional deadlock over immigration, Sessions wrote to Frist on Wednesday, declaring: "We are not close to ... a consensus now. The best solution is to go forward with strong immigration enforcement."

Democrats noted that House Republicans were introducing their bill at a time when the GOP, vulnerable in several election campaigns, needed an issue to rally voters.

"It's so transparent," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), adding that he hoped Latino voters would see through the Republican gambit and help the Democrats on election day.

"We believe in comprehensive immigration reform," Reid said. "We believe there should be a program to bring 12 million people out of the shadows."

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who met with Reid on Wednesday, said he too was disappointed in the House proposal. "I think a bill that only addresses security and does in the punitive way that the House does is absolutely unacceptable," he said, adding: "It's un-American."

Most provisions in the new bill -- including the fencing and camera requirements -- were taken from the get-tough immigration legislation the House passed in December. That bill bolstered enforcement at the border, in the workplace and inside the country. It also made it a felony to be in the country illegally or to help someone who is -- provisions that helped trigger massive demonstrations in the spring.

The new bill "is just a rehashing of legislation that's already been passed," said Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. In the next few weeks, he said, he expects House Republicans to offer anti-gang legislation as part of the border security package.

The one new section would give Customs and Border Protection agents working on the ground and in the air division greater authority to stop smugglers' cars when they enter the U.S. illegally or attempt to flee authorities. Now, the most agents can do is lay down spike strips to puncture the tires of fleeing vehicles.

The new House bill would require Customs and Border Protection to consider other technologies, including rubber bullets, to stop smugglers who are trying to escape or who pose a threat to the community, a Republican aide said.

Drafting several smaller measures allows the House to advertise multiple achievements to voters in November, but it will also allow them to discreetly omit the felony provisions, which many in the Senate vehemently opposed.

House leaders say the new fence bill and the measures that will follow are products of the immigration field hearings they held across the country this summer. Though the hearings were described as an effort to find out what the public thought about immigration and border security, they did not allow for public participation, and the witness lists leaned heavily toward experts who supported the enforcement-only view.

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nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

Times staff writer Noam Levey contributed to this report.

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