With Senate Vote, Congress Passes Border Fence Bill

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Senate gave final approval last night to legislation authorizing the construction of 700 miles of double-layered fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border, shelving President Bush's vision of a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration laws in favor of a vast barrier.

The measure was pushed hard by House Republican leaders, who badly wanted to pass a piece of legislation that would make good on their promises to get tough on illegal immigrants, despite warnings from critics that a multibillion-dollar fence would do little to address the underlying economic, social and law enforcement problems, or to prevent others from slipping across the border. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) surprised many advocates of a more comprehensive approach to immigration problems when he took up the House bill last week.

But in Congress's rush to recess last night for the fall political campaigns, the fence bill passed easily, 80 to 19, with 26 Democrats joining 54 Republicans in support. One Republican, Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.); one independent, Sen. James M. Jeffords (Vt.); and 17 Democrats opposed the bill. The president has indicated that he will sign it.

Mexico's foreign affairs secretary, Luis Ernesto Derbez, told reporters in Mexico City yesterday that his country plans to send a letter strongly condemning the measure in an effort to dissuade Bush from signing the bill.

If fully constructed, the fence would span a distance equivalent to the distance between Washington and Jacksonville, Fla.

The Secure Fence Act authorizes the construction of at least two layers of reinforced fencing around the border town of Tecate, Calif., and a huge expanse stretching from Calexico, Calif., to Douglas, Ariz. -- virtually the entire length of Arizona's border with Mexico. Another expanse would stretch over much of the southern border of New Mexico, with another section winding through Texas, from Del Rio to Eagle Pass, and from Laredo to Brownsville.

The Department of Homeland Security would be required to install an intricate network of surveillance cameras on the Arizona border by May 30, 2007, with the entire fence set for completion by the end of 2008.

Under the measure, the secretary of homeland security would have 18 months to achieve "operational control" of the U.S. frontier, using unmanned aerial vehicles, ground-based sensors, satellites, radar and cameras to prevent all unlawful U.S. entries. Fortifying those requirements, Congress approved $1.2 billion in a separate homeland security spending bill to bankroll the fence.

That figure, however, is only a down payment and falls far short of the $6 billion the fence is expected to cost. Lawmakers from both parties conceded that even at 700 miles in length, the barrier would leave nearly 1,300 miles of border uncovered.

Foes of illegal immigration had clamored for the bill, flooding lawmakers' phones in the past week and sending lawmakers bricks symbolizing the wall they want on the southern border. Advocates of the measure called it a landmark step toward securing the nation's porous borders.

"Fortifying our borders is an integral component of national security," Frist said. "We can't afford to wait."

But opponents dismissed it as a political stunt, an international disgrace and an affront to the ideals laid out by Bush earlier this year when he called for legislation that would couple a border crackdown with new paths to lawful work and citizenship for foreigners seeking entry and for the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented workers.

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