Senate panel OKs new border fencing


WASHINGTON -- Proposals for erecting more barriers on the nation's southern border received a significant boost yesterday as a Senate committee continued its work on an overhaul of immigration legislation.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved proposals to erect double- and triple-layered fencing near Arizona border cities and to commission a study on the feasibility of more extensive fencing along the other parts of the border.

The measures received bipartisan support, each passing with just one dissenting vote.

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

Yesterday's hearing indicated that even though senators have said they will consider broader legislation, including a guest worker program, they would also act to add tough enforcement measures and bolster security infrastructure.

The panel also voted to sharply boost the number of agents working along the U.S.-Mexican border. But in a reflection of the debate's complexity, once the hearing was over senators 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 senators were awaiting transcripts of yesterday'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 has more than 11,000 agents.

Facing a March 27 deadline set by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, 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 in the country.

In their third meeting to consider the legislation, the committee did not get to some of the more contentious questions, such as whether to create a guest worker program. But the difficulties ahead were evident as the committee foundered on some of the more sensitive issues, including whether to make illegal presence in the United States a criminal offense and whether some immigration enforcement laws should be applied retroactively.

After failing to vote on any proposals Wednesday for lack of a quorum, the committee passed a dozen amendments yesterday.

Senators approved a measure by Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, that would prohibit municipalities from requiring companies to set up day-labor sites as a condition of conducting or expanding their business. Sessions said municipalities should not ask business to "set aside private property and spend private capital abetting illegal activity."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, backed the measure, saying she was concerned about liability issues in operating such centers if cities required them, businesses were required to open them and church personnel would often staff them.

"I don't know where liability lies," Feinstein said. "It is a dangerous practice. At the very least, it bends the law and possibly breaks it."

The lone dissenting vote on that proposal came from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy a Massachusetts Democrat, who argued that day-labor centers helped communities concentrate workers in one place and that it was not federal business to dictate local matters. "Why can't local communities make the decisions?" he asked.

Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, sponsored the measure for layered fencing running along the border near the Arizona cities of Douglas, Nogales, Lukeville and Naco, and extending 25 miles beyond Naco into the desert.

In extensive debate over the fence Wednesday, Kyl defended his proposal against charges that such barriers are outmoded, saying it would also 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.

When Feinstein challenged him to prove that the new fencing would not affect California, Kyl told her he could not assure her of that and reminded her that he helped write the legislation for the San Diego fence.

Construction of that double barrier was credited with sharply reducing the number of illegal border-crossers into San Diego County and driving them eastward into Arizona.

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

Kennedy's measure to conduct a study on the effectiveness and impact of further fencing on border cities, relations with the Mexican government and the environment passed with a dissenting vote from Sessions. The Alabama senator, whose proposal for a 700-mile wall in the most heavily trafficked border areas had failed, had made clear during the discussion Wednesday his disapproval for a study instead of a decision to build.

"The American people have a right to be dubious of what we do here," he said.

Other amendments approved yesterday included Feinstein's measure to exempt asylum-seekers from being prosecuted on charges of forged documents if they can prove a credible fear of persecution in their home country and a measure by Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, that would order the deportation of illegal aliens in federal and state prisons.

Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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