Bush signs bill authorizing 700 miles of border fencing

President calls measure `important step,' but no money is allocated

October 27, 2006|By Nicole Gaouette | Nicole Gaouette,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Legislation authorizing 700 miles of fencing along the southern U.S. border was signed into law by President Bush yesterday at a ceremony that underscored Republican divisions over immigration policy and left questions about whether the entire barrier will be built.

Flanked by House Majority Leader John A. Boehner of 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," he said during the low-key event.

Promises by GOP leaders to alter the law when Congress reconvenes after the Nov. 7 elections -- in addition to a lack of funding specifically for the fence -- have cast doubt on how much of it ultimately will be built. Changes to the measure would likely include giving local governments and private property owners the chance to raise objections over the fencing's location.

Bush did call the fence bill "an important step toward immigration reform."

But he made clear that he opposes the enforcement-only position taken by the House and favors 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 "a program of mass deportation."

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 of Tennessee and House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois.

Mexican officials have denounced the fence plan; they continued their criticism yesterday.

"Walls don't resolve anything; it's a grave error," said President-elect Felipe Calderon, who was traveling in Canada.

Calderon, due to be sworn in Dec. 1, added, "It would be more useful to the progress of our countries to build a kilometer of highways in Zacatecas or Michoacan than to build 10 kilometers of wall in Arizona."

President Vicente Fox termed the measure "an embarrassment for the United States."

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, including 14 miles in the San Diego area.

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 Native American tribes, on the exact placement of fencing and other infrastructure, such as vehicle barriers.

Money poses another potential problem. 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 Homeland Security department 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 300 to 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.

Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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