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Senate committee OKs border fences, more agents

WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved proposals to erect double- and triple-layered fencing near Arizona border cities and to sharply boost the number of agents working along the Mexican border as lawmakers worked to overhaul U.S. immigration policy.

While those measures received wide bipartisan support, the panel has yet to deal with contentious issues such as whether to create a guest-worker program, whether to make illegal presence in the United States a criminal offense and whether some immigration enforcement laws should be applied retroactively.

The House produced immigration legislation in December that concentrated on enforcement, tough penalties for immigration infractions and new security measures.

Thursday’s hearing indicated that the Senate is thinking along the same lines. But in a reflection of the debate’s complexity, senators after the hearing were unable to agree on how many Border Patrol agents they had decided to add every year, or for how many years the increases would continue.

Judiciary Committee staff said the lawmakers were awaiting transcripts of Thursday’s meeting to see what had been settled.

“The general agreement is that there was an increase in agents, over 10,000,” said committee spokesman Blain Rethmeier. The Border Patrol currently has more than 11,000 agents.

Facing a March 27 deadline set by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the committee has to resolve those questions and others as it works through a 305-page bill that covers border, interior and workplace enforcement; visa reform; a guest-worker program and the status of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the country.

After failing to vote on any proposals Wednesday for lack of a quorum, the committee passed a dozen amendments Thursday – its third session to consider the legislation.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., sponsored the measure for layered fencing running along the border near the cities of Douglas, Nogales, Lukeville and Naco and extending 25 miles beyond Naco into the desert. It passed with just one dissenting vote.

In extensive debate over the fence on Wednesday, Kyl had defended his proposal against charges that such barriers are outmoded; he explained that it would involve at least 150 miles of vehicle barriers and all-weather roads. “This old 19th-century technology does a nice job when you put it in 20th-century materials,” he said.

“Arizona is still apprehending over half of all illegal aliens,” Kyl said.