WASHINGTON – The House on Thursday easily passed a bill calling for construction of lengthy sections of double-layered fencing along the U.S. border with Mexico, sending the legislation to a Senate that appears inclined to approve it and other security measures.
The 283-138 vote demonstrated that even as Capitol Hill remains deadlocked over what to do with the millions of illegal immigrants already in the U.S. or whether to establish a guest worker program, bipartisan support exists for significantly toughening border security – especially as the November elections near.
And though House Republicans stressed that enforcement should come first, they gave no indication of when, or even whether, they would support broader immigration measures, such as a guest worker program, that are supported by the Senate, President Bush and farmers and other businesses nationwide.
House Republicans touted the fence bill as the first phase of a larger border security package that they also unveiled Thursday. It includes a measure that would make it a crime to dig border tunnels and another that would end a provision in immigration law that protects Salvadorans from deportation.
Increasingly, gangs with roots in El Salvador are a significant crime problem.
The fence bill mandates the construction of fencing around Tecate and Calexico, Calif., and in heavily populated areas of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
The bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to prevent “all unlawful entries into the United States” within 18 months after the bill is enacted; urges the department to allow Border Patrol agents to use greater force against smuggler vehicles; and orders a study on security at the northern border with Canada
House leaders said they were working with the Senate to determine how to put the measures before President Bush as quickly as possible. House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Congress should finish considering all of them by the end of September.
“Republicans believe we can have a no-penetration border,” said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Asked when the House might back a guest worker program or other non-enforcement measures, Hastert said: “If we get a virtual no-penetration program on the border, then we can look at a lot of things.”
Debate on overhauling immigration laws has been deadlocked for months.
Enforcement is a priority for the Senate, but many senators believe it cannot work effectively unless it is accompanied by a guest worker program, which would meet the labor needs of the agricultural and hospitality industries, and a program to draw the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. into the legal system – a position favored by President Bush. Those provisions were in a bill approved by the Senate in May.
Many senators in both parties argue that if this year’s Congress ignores these issues and focuses only on border security, it will have shirked its responsibilities and ultimately failed to adequately address the complexity of the immigration problem.