House Votes to Boost Border Security; Broader Immigration Issues Remain
The House on Thursday easily passed a bill calling for construction of lengthy sections of double-layered fencing along the U.S. border with Mexico, sending the legislation to a Senate that appeared inclined to approve that and other security measures.
The 283-138 vote demonstrated that even as Capitol Hill remained deadlocked over what to do about the millions of illegal immigrants already in this country, bipartisan support existed for significantly toughening border security, especially as the November election neared.
And though House Republicans emphasized that enforcement should come first, they gave no indication of when -- or even whether -- they’d support broader immigration measures, such as a guest worker program, that are supported by the Senate, President Bush and farmers and other businesspeople.
House Republicans promoted the fence bill as the first phase of a larger border-security package they unveiled Thursday. It includes a measure that would make it a crime to dig border tunnels and another that would end a provision in immigration law that protects Salvadorans from deportation.
In the Los Angeles area, and increasingly in other parts of the nation, gangs with roots in El Salvador are a significant crime problem.
The fence bill mandates the construction of 700 miles of fencing along several sections of the 2,000-mile border: around Tecate and Calexico, Calif., along most of the Arizona stretch, and in heavily populated areas of Texas and New Mexico.
The bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to prevent “all unlawful entries into the United States” within 18 months after the bill is enacted; urges the department to allow Border Patrol agents to use greater force against smuggler vehicles; and orders a study on security at the northern border with Canada.
The California delegation split mostly along party lines; only two Democrats, Dennis Cardoza of Atwater and Jim Costa of Fresno, joined all 20 Republicans in supporting the bill.
House leaders said they were working with the Senate to determine how to get the measures to Bush as quickly as possible. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Congress should finish considering all of them by the end of September.
“Republicans believe we can have a no-penetration border,” said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Of the fence proposal, he said: “If we build it, they will no longer come illegally.”
Asked when the House might back a guest-worker program or other nonenforcement measures, Hastert said: “If we get a virtual no-penetration program on the border, then we can look at a lot of things.”
Debate on overhauling immigration laws has been deadlocked for months.
Enforcement is a priority for the Senate, but many senators believe it cannot work effectively unless it is accompanied by a guest worker program to help meet the labor needs of the agricultural and hospitality industries, and a program to draw the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. into the legal system -- a position favored by Bush. Those provisions were in a bill approved by the Senate in May.
Many senators in both parties argue that if this year’s Congress ignores these issues and focuses only on border security, it will have shirked its responsibilities and ultimately failed to adequately address the complexity of the immigration problem.
Even so, some senators expressed cautious support for the House border security package, even as they pointed to elements they thought it lacked.
“I’m not going to take a position against it,” said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who helped write the Senate-passed bill. But, he added, the House bill is “not comprehensive immigration reform ... it’s just security.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who wrote a bill criminalizing the construction of tunnels under the border, said she was delighted to see a similar measure in the House border security package. But she expressed disappointment that there was no provision to help California farmers get access to workers.
With California in the middle of its peak harvest season and Florida’s orange harvest set to begin next month, agriculture is a concern for lawmakers of all political stripes. Rep. Adam H. Putnam (R-Fla.), who chaired the all-Republican meeting that led to the border security package, appeared Wednesday at a rally organized by farmers, restaurant owners and other businesses dependent on immigrant labor.
With the administration increasing crackdowns on employers who hire illegal workers and an emphasis in Congress on enforcement, growers are getting nervous, lawmakers said.
“The status quo is killing farmers,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). “They are desperate. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
On Thursday, Putnam said the House wanted to restore confidence in the government’s ability to secure the border before addressing labor needs. But with oranges left unpicked because of labor shortages last year and the new harvest season approaching, he said he didn’t “see any way to get this resolved before the fall harvest.”
Democrats in both chambers dismissed the border measures as a political ploy, particularly considering that the House had already passed many of their provisions, including the fencing requirement.
“I think it’s sad when House leadership has sought to take an important issue and turn it into a political platform,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), who noted that thorny issues such as Medicare, Iraq and the Gulf Coast hurricane recovery were getting little attention from the GOP.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) accused House Republicans of using immigration as a scare tactic, conflating terrorists with immigrants looking for work so that Americans would think that “Osama bin Laden is heading north in a sombrero.”