WASHINGTON – Legislation authorizing 700 miles of fencing along the southern U.S. border was signed into law by President Bush on Thursday at a ceremony that underscored Republican divisions over immigration policy and left unanswered questions about whether the entire barrier will be built.
Flanked by House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other Republicans who blocked his bid for a broader overhaul of immigration law, Bush used the opportunity to push back. “We have more to do,” the president said during the low-key event.
Promises by GOP congressional leaders to alter the law when lawmakers reconvene later this month and a lack of funding specifically set aside for the fence have cast doubt on how long it ultimately might be. Changes to the measure likely would include giving local governments and private property owners the chance to raise objections to the fence’s location.
Bush did have words of praise for the fence bill, calling it “an important step toward immigration reform.”
But he made clear that he opposed the enforcement-only position taken by the House and favored instead the approach embraced by the Senate: a combination of tougher border security and work site enforcement with a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for some of the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
Bush said he looked forward to working with Congress on finding a “rational middle ground” between granting automatic citizenship to illegal immigrants and launching “a program of mass deportation.”
He also said, “We must reduce pressure on our border by creating a temporary worker plan.”
Some GOP leaders had pressed a reluctant White House for the signing ceremony so that as November’s election nears, Republicans could promote the fence bill as an accomplishment, party aides said.
“House and Senate Republicans … will stop the hemorrhaging along our nation’s borders,” said a statement by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
The House Republican leadership, in particular, views the fence not only as a needed security improvement but as a powerful political statement that will win support for the party. Other Republicans, however, worry that it could cost the GOP support among Hispanic voters.
Mexican officials have harshly denounced the fence plan, and they continued their criticism on Thursday.
“Walls don’t resolve anything; it’s a grave error,” said President-elect Felipe Calderon, who was traveling in Canada.
President Vicente Fox termed the measure “an embarrassment for the United States.”
Commenting during a visit to Cancun, Fox said, “It’s an example of the inability of the United States to see the issue of immigration as one of shared responsibility.”
The fence’s advocates in Congress have countered that their first responsibility is to ensure the sanctity of the U.S. border.
There are currently about 90 miles of fencing along the southern border.
The bill contains detailed instructions for placement of “at least 2 layers of reinforced fencing” around Tecate and Calexico, Calif., and across vast stretches of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. But a letter written by Hastert and Frist to other congressional leaders when the measure cleared Congress on Sept. 29 detailed changes they wanted made to it when lawmakers return to Washington in mid-November.
Hastert and Frist indicated that they want to provide flexibility on where the fence should go and whether parts of it take a physical or virtual form – potentially using sensors, cameras and unmanned aerial vehicles in the place of reinforced metal.
Their letter called for requiring the Department of Homeland Security to erect fencing in areas of high illegal entry, but also giving the agency the option “to use alternative physical infrastructure and technology when fencing is ineffective or impractical.”
Also, Hastert and Frist want to require agency officials to consult with state and local governments, including American Indian tribes, on the exact placement of fencing and other infrastructure, such as vehicle barriers.
Money poses another potential problem for the fence. Cost estimates range from $3 million to $10 million per mile – for a total price tag of at least $2.1 billion, and perhaps much higher, before maintenance costs. The bill Bush signed, while authorizing the fence, includes no money for it.
A separate budget measure for the Department of Homeland Security provides $1.2 billion for border security that Republicans have referred to as the “first installment” for the fence. But that money can be allocated as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff sees fit.
Agency officials have told Congress they would prefer between 300 and 400 miles of fencing in areas where they believe it would be effective and the latitude to employ other security methods elsewhere.
“In urban areas, we’ve found that fencing is very effective, but in rural areas, sensors and other technology are more effective,” said DHS spokesman Russ Knocke.