Vote softly and build a big fence

The U.S. Senate on Friday overwhelmingly agreed to authorize construction of a fence along the U.S. border with Mexico, sending to President George W. Bush before the November 7 elections a bill that Republicans hope will showcase their efforts to stop illegal immigration.

The Republican-written bill authorizing construction of about 700 miles of fence was one of the last bills to clear Congress as lawmakers prepared to leave Washington to campaign for the congressional elections. On a vote of 80-19 the Senate approved the bill already passed by the House of Representatives and it now goes to Bush for his signature.

Bush had sought broad immigration legislation that would create a guest-worker program to help provide a steady workforce for jobs Americans are either unable or unwilling to do. But he was unable to marshal support for it in the face of opposition from a solid group of House Republicans who pushed for tougher enforcement and border measures instead.

A separate bill approved by the House on Friday provided an initial $1.2 billion in funding for the fence and other border-security measures for the fiscal year that begins Oct 1. The money is part of a $34.8 billion bill for domestic security programs for the fiscal year that begins October 1.

The broad spending bill also criminalizes the construction of tunnels that could be secret passageways from Mexico or Canada for drug smugglers, illegal aliens or terrorists.

The Senate was expected to pass the funding bill quickly and send it on to Bush along with the fence authorization.

Opponents of the fence said it would be expensive and was not an effective deterrent to illegal immigration.

"This is a political gimmick," said Sen. Ken Salazar, a Democrat from Colorado. "It is not in the long-term interest of of the United States of America and the Western Hemisphere."

The government of Mexico on Thursday issued a statement expressing "its profound concern" with the fence. The statement, translated from Spanish, said such measures "are contrary to the spirit of cooperation that should prevail to guarantee security in the common border."


Backers of the fence said it was an important tool to clamp down against illegal immigration. An estimated 1.2 million illegal immigrants were arrested in the last fiscal year trying to cross into the United States along the border states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Sections of the fence would be built in each state.

"Fortifying our borders is the first prong of comprehensive immigration reform and it’s an integral piece of national security," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican.

Lawmakers and analysts say Congress could tackle comprehensive immigration legislation in a post-election sessions, but they acknowledge difficulties.

"It will be tough but doable," said Rep. Adam Putnam, a Florida Republican.

"There is a lot of pent up pressure and interest in doing something in the lame duck session," said Craig Regelbrugge of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.

Democrats accused the Republican majority of playing politics with the fence bill after raising immigration as an election-year issue but having little to show in the way of legislation.

"This is about November. This is about incumbent protection, not about border protection," said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Earlier this year the Senate passed broad immigration legislation that combined border security and employer sanctions with a plan to create a guest-worker program and provide a path to citizenship for many of the 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

The Senate and House were unable to compromise and instead resorted to passing a series narrow border security measures.

© Reuters 2006