Proposal Would Fence Off Mexico

Times Staff Writer

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) on Thursday called for constructing a high-tech fence along the nation’s border from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico as part of a sweeping crackdown on illegal immigration.

The proposal would also increase penalties on employers who hire undocumented workers, step up deportation of illegal immigrants already living in the U.S. and deny citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal entrants, among a host of enforcement measures.

The bill, to be introduced soon, is a wish list for immigration control advocates in the pending congressional debate over President Bush’s plan to create a guest worker program.

“This legislation ... implements appropriate and necessary solutions to many of our nation’s immigration problems,” Hunter said.

The call for a border fence drew immediate reaction.

“I predict the fence will be a hugely popular concept and there will be an enormous groundswell of support,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors limits. “What it will really do is separate the true reformers from those who want cheap labor.”


Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke declined to comment on Hunter’s bill, but the Bush administration already has taken a stand against building a fence along the 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico.

“Let me be clear: We will not build a giant wall across our border,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said this week in a speech in Houston. “But in areas where it makes sense to do so, we will look at physical infrastructure and technical improvements to deter illegal border crossing.”

Chertoff, who recently approved the long-stalled completion of a 14-mile border fence near San Diego, believes some additional barriers may be needed near urban areas, Knocke said, but doesn’t see the point of fencing in desert.

As envisioned by Hunter, two parallel reinforced fences would run along nearly the entire length of the border. He acknowledged that there might be areas in rough terrain, however, where it would not be feasible to build the fences. A 100-yard security zone would extend north from the fences.

Under Bush’s proposal, illegal immigrants already in the U.S. could apply for work permits. Proponents of measures that would grant legal status to otherwise law-abiding workers called the fence proposal a publicity gimmick.

“This is a great sound bite, and it will look great in a Hunter campaign ad, but it will not give us control,” said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York. “Before they’re done building it, you’ll have a hundred tunnels and 500 boats. I believe Americans are more practical than this.”

“Building a fence is a perennial,” said Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino activist group. “It seems to me that if anybody really believed that fences would make a difference, we would already have more of them.”

Bush and many business leaders argue that the U.S. economy is too dependent on immigrant labor to shut off the flow abruptly. Instead, they propose steps to grant legal status to most of the 8 million to 11 million undocumented immigrants already here, and to establish a system for future migrants.

Advocates of curbs, however, believe the nation needs a timeout from immigration. And they support measures to forcibly remove undocumented immigrants.

The long-awaited immigration debate in Congress will pit each side against the other, with the most heated policy battles expected within GOP ranks.