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.
The Secure Fence Act specifies that fencing extend 10 miles to the east and west of Tecate, Calif., and from 10 miles west of Calexico, Calif., to five miles east of Douglas, Ariz.
In other areas, the fencing would start five miles west of Columbus, N.M., and extend to 10 miles east of El Paso; extend from five miles northwest of Del Rio, Texas, to five miles southeast of Eagle Pass, Texas; and from 15 miles northwest of Laredo, Texas, to Brownsville, Texas.
The Homeland Security spending bill also makes it a criminal offense to build tunnels under U.S. borders, and includes prison terms for landowners who allow the tunnels to be built on their property.
The measure was sponsored in the Senate by Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and in the House by David Dreier (R-San Dimas).
Although Feinstein was among those voting for the fence bill, she was highly critical that it did not include a guest worker program, arguing that such a measure was vital to agriculture in California and other parts of the country.
On Friday, she joined with Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) in a failed effort to attach the program to the bill.
Labor shortages in the field are costing billions of dollars in lost produce this year.
Feinstein, noting that California produces about half of all America’s fruits, vegetables and nuts, warned that harvest problems in the state would affect consumers in the other 49.
“I don’t know what it takes to show that there is an emergency,” she said. “I think next year we should be ready, willing and able to [create a guest worker program], but we will have lost one agricultural season. I just hope that someone will listen.”
California’s other senator, Democrat Barbara Boxer, also voted for the fence bill. Other prominent Democratic senators who supported it included Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.
Overall, the bill was backed by 54 Republicans and 26 Democrats; opposing it were 17 Democrats, one Republican (Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island) and the Senate’s lone independent (James M. Jeffords of Vermont).
Some of those voting for the bill said they believed it could serve as a prelude to the type of broader changes in immigration policy sought by Bush.
“Many people have told me they will support comprehensive immigration reform if we secure the border first,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). “I hope we can use passage of this bill as a starting point toward long-term, comprehensive immigration reform.”
Immigrant advocates expressed skepticism that the 700 miles of fencing would ever be completed, given how costly it may prove. They also predicted the bill would have the unintended effect of hurting the long-term prospects of the Republican Party by sparking intense opposition among Latinos.
“I’m going to go out on a limb and say we’ll never see a 700-mile wall along the southern border,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of National Immigration Forum. “This is about incumbent protection, not border protection.”
Cecilia Munoz, a vice president at the National Council of La Raza, characterized the fence bill as “more symbolism than substance.”
She added, “It’s pretty clear to me it’s going to have a negative impact on Republican prospects.”
Times staff writer Hector Tobar contributed to this report from Mexico City.