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Border Barrier Approved

The bill, which calls for 700 miles of fence and beefed-up enforcement, easily clears the Senate. It does not include a guest worker program.

September 30, 2006|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Friday approved and sent to President Bush a bill calling for construction of a 700-mile wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, voting overwhelmingly for a project that became the centerpiece of efforts to improve border security and stem illegal immigration.

Bush is expected to sign the measure into law.

"Most immigrants come to America with good intentions, but not all of them," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said in supporting the bill. "We need an enforcement-first approach ... [that] allows us to get full operational control of our border."

The bill, which passed 80 to 19 and is identical to legislation passed by the House last week, authorizes the building of double-layered fencing in areas near Tecate and Calexico, Calif., and border towns in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.

It also empowers the government's Homeland Security secretary to "take all actions ... necessary" to stop "all unlawful entries into the United States."

The legislation's opponents dismissed it as a costly political gimmick that would have little effect on stopping illegal immigration. They also chided Congress for failing to create a guest worker program or to address the status of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S.

The fence is "a feel-good plan that will have little effect in the real world," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Even before the bill passed, it prompted an angry condemnation from the Mexican government.

"We have indicated in a clear and unambiguous manner that the wall is unnecessary and that it is not a gesture that shows friendship between the countries of Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States," said Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Ernesto Derbez.

He said Mexico would send a note of diplomatic protest about the fence to the White House.

The debate on immigration dominated much of this year's congressional session, especially after Bush in a nationally televised speech in May called for a sweeping rewrite of current policy. He called for legislation that, in addition to increased border security, would create a path to U.S. citizenship for many illegal immigrants and a guest worker program as part of a broad effort to control entry into the U.S.

The Senate later that month passed a bill embracing the approach, but efforts to reach agreement with the House quickly reached a stalemate.

Republican House leaders objected to citizenship proposals as a form of "amnesty" for illegal immigrants and insisted that any legislation passed this year should focus on enforcement at the border. With an eye on the November midterm election, they argued that their view was in line with the sentiments of most voters.

After months of back-and-forth over the issue, the fence bill is the main result of the debate, representing a partial victory for House Republicans. Some other enforcement measures sought by the House, such as making it easier to deport illegal immigrants linked to gangs, fell by the wayside.

As part of the larger push to secure the border, the House and Senate on Friday approved and sent to Bush a spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security that, among other provisions, will alter the way Americans travel to and from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean.

The bill, which Congress made a priority to pass before recessing for the November election, will require U.S. citizens to present a passport when returning from other countries in the Western Hemisphere, ending Americans' ability to cross these international borders with simply a driver's license or other forms of identification.

The provision, recommended by the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is to take effect June 1, 2009.

The $33.7-billion spending bill also significantly boosts funding for border security and enforcement of immigration laws at work sites and elsewhere.

The bill will enable the Department of Homeland Security to hire an additional 1,500 border patrol agents and buy 6,700 more beds at detention centers for illegal immigrants. In the past, the lack of enough beds at these facilities has caused authorities to release some of the illegal immigrants they apprehended.

The bill also provides $1.2 billion to pay for border fencing, vehicle barriers and improved sensor equipment at border crossings.

The money "provides flexibility for smart deployment of physical infrastructure that needs to be built along the Southwest border," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Estimates of the cost of construction of 700 miles of fencing range from $2 billion to $9 billion, so Congress will need to allocate more money for the project in future years.

Fencing over about 90 miles now runs along the border with Mexico. Some secondary fencing has been installed 50 to 200 yards north of the border around San Diego and Tucson.

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