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September 29, 2023

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House votes to build $2.2 billion fence

By Dave Montgomery MCT

WASHINGTON – The House voted 283-138 yesterday to construct more than 700 miles of two-layered fencing along the porous Southwest border, but most Democrats denounced the plan as blatant political posturing in advance of the Nov. 7 congressional elections.

Afterward, House GOP leaders unveiled a package of other relatively non-controversial border-security initiatives, expressing confidence that they could win passage in the Senate and advance to the president’s desk before lawmakers quit work at the end of the month to campaign for re-election.

But the Senate outlook remained quite uncertain, as senators of both parties and President Bush have insisted that tough border security measures should be passed only if part of more-comprehensive legislation.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., hinted that House leaders might be willing to consider more-contentious elements of immigration legislation – including Bush’s proposed guest-worker program – if they are satisfied that Congress first has moved aggressively to secure U.S. borders.

“If we get a virtual no-penetration program on the border, then we can look at a lot of different things,” Hastert said.

But other lawmakers said that, with time running out, it appears virtually impossible for the House and Senate to find common ground on divisive immigration issues that have kept them deadlocked for months.

House leaders have refused to consider a comprehensive Senate-passed bill that would put millions of illegal immigrants on a path toward permanent legal status and U.S. citizenship. The measure also includes a version of the president’s guest-worker plan, as well as stiffer border-enforcement measures.

Bush, who met Thursday morning on Capitol Hill with Republican House members, this week renewed his call for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws. His administration has embraced limited fencing as a partial solution to strengthening the border, but not to the extent proposed by the House.

The fence proposal is identical to one that was included in an immigration enforcement bill that the House passed last December. With that measure sidelined in the stalemate with the Senate, House leaders resurrected the proposed $2.2 billion barrier as the first element of their latest border security package.

The “Border Security Now” agenda recycles several provisions from the stalled House and Senate bills, including $2.3 billion for 1,200 new Border Patrol agents next year, a crackdown on smugglers and criminal aliens and stiff penalties for the construction of border tunnels.

Sixty-four Democrats joined 219 Republicans in voting for the fence; 131 Democrats and six Republicans voted against it.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who sponsored a similar tunnel provision in the Senate, said she welcomed the House version of her proposal but withheld judgment on other provisions until she takes a closer look. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading architect of the Senate bill, said he would support proposals to strengthen the border but also said he wants to study the House initiatives before taking a position.

The largest section of fencing in the House bill would reach 361 miles from Calexico, Calif., to Douglas, Ariz. A 22-mile section would be built near a port entry in Tecate, Calif., in east San Diego County. Three sections would be in Texas – a 51-mile stretch from Del Rio to Eagle Pass; 176 miles from Laredo to Brownsville and 88 miles stretching from El Paso westward to Columbus, N.M.

The bill also urges the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to study the feasibility of erecting similar barriers along the country’s northern border with Canada.

It also requires the DHS to achieve operational control over both borders through a “virtual fence” that includes cameras, ground sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles and integrated surveillance technology. Five industry teams are competing for a multibillion-dollar contract to assemble the virtual fence, and the DHS expects to announce a winner by Sept. 30.

Republican leaders said the proposed barriers would have support in the Senate, which already has endorsed 370 miles of fencing and authorized $1.8 billion to fund it.

But Democrats said Republicans are trying to show conservative constituents that they are getting tough on immigration to bolster support in the elections.

“This is the same bill they passed before – the same monstrous bill,” said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “We’re not going to play their silly little games.”

Republicans argued that the fence, when coupled with their other initiatives, would answer public demands for urgently need safeguards to shore up the borders against illegal immigration and potential terrorism. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, called it “the first long step” in a comprehensive border security plan.

“The American people expect us to secure the border,” said House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

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