By Michael A. Fletcher and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 27, 2006
WARREN, Mich., Oct. 26 -- President Bush signed a measure Thursday authorizing the construction of a fence along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, an action that conflicts with his own stated vision of immigration reform but one championed by many Republicans facing reelection in November.
Speaking at a White House ceremony before a day of campaigning for GOP candidates in Iowa and Michigan, Bush said the barrier will help the United States plug the porous Southwest border.
"Unfortunately, the United States has not been in complete control of its borders for decades and, therefore, illegal immigration has been on the rise," Bush said. "We have a responsibility to address these challenges. We have a responsibility to enforce our laws. We have a responsibility to secure our borders. We take this responsibility seriously."
Bush portrayed the measure as a key step toward comprehensive immigration reform, but the fence bill passed by the GOP-controlled Congress put him in a tight squeeze with international allies and his own immigration principles on one side, and the electoral needs of his party on the other.
Bush has said that immigration reform would work only if stepped-up enforcement is accompanied by a guest-worker program that would create a legal path for large numbers of low-skill workers to enter the United States. The president has also endorsed providing the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States a chance at citizenship, saying such a humane vision of immigration is in keeping with the nation's history and traditions.
But those positions were rejected by congressional Republicans, who advocated tougher enforcement to slow the flood of illegal immigration that is overwhelming many communities, particularly in the West and Southwest. They passed legislation that would do as much.
"Today marks another step forward in making America safer and in stemming the tide of illegal immigration," House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said in a statement. "The American people demand border security, and this Republican Congress and President are committed to achieving operational control of the border through an enforcement-first approach."
The government of Mexican President Vicente Fox made it clear that he wanted the bill vetoed. A statement by Mexico, and signed by 27 other Organization of American States members on Wednesday, expressed concern about the bill, calling it "a unilateral measure that goes against the spirit of understanding that should characterize how shared problems between neighboring countries are handled and that affects cooperation in the hemisphere."
Such concerns were outweighed by the pleadings of congressional Republicans eager to back up their tough talk on border security with a legislative accomplishment. The president's signing ceremony was followed by a blizzard of statements from GOP lawmakers hailing the law.
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) called it "a major victory in Republicans' efforts to make a real difference in securing our borders."
The fence bill is a far cry from the comprehensive measure that cleared the Senate, which would have paired tough border security provisions with new paths to lawful work and citizenship for foreign workers and the nation's illegal immigrants. It is a small piece of the more modest House bill that included a fence and measures to crack down on the hiring of undocumented workers.
Democrats dismissed the legislation as pointless. Only a fraction of the billions needed to finance the fence has been appropriated, and much of the construction might not be feasible. In swaths of Arizona, the fence would have to climb steep, desert crags and plunge into deep ravines.
Without border agents to patrol the barrier, smugglers would blast holes in remote stretches, some critics have said. "The bill the president signed today represents the worst in election-year politics," said Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.). "It is an empty gesture for the sole purpose of sending a false message about the security of our nation."
Though he signed the measure into law, Bush emphasized that other immigration changes are needed. "We have more to do," he said. ". . . We must reduce pressure on our border by creating a temporary-worker plan. Willing workers ought to be matched with willing employers."
Though the new law authorizes the construction of a 700-mile fence, it remains far from clear how much fencing will be built.
Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke declined to say if the department is committed to building a 700-mile barrier. Instead, he cited the DHS commitment to test by next year a $67 million, 28-mile "virtual fence" that includes physical walls, vehicle barriers and remote monitoring south of Tucson.
Analysts, meanwhile, debate the effectiveness of a fence.
Since the United States began building a 66-mile barrier in San Diego in 1990, illegal immigration has been rerouted to more remote areas, with many migrants now being funneled through the treacherous desert south of Arizona.
Later in the day, Bush traveled to Iowa, where he campaigned for GOP congressional candidate Jeff Lamberti, a state senator who is trying to unseat Rep. Leonard L. Boswell (D). Campaign officials said the luncheon raised $400,000.
Bush then traveled to Michigan, where he headlined a fundraiser for GOP Senate candidate Mike Bouchard, who is trailing incumbent Debbie Stabenow (D). That event raised $700,000, officials said.
Weisman reported from Washington. Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu in Washington contributed to this report.