President Bush has signed off on a small down payment for a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, but legislators and fence advocates worry the barrier will never be fully funded and fear a lack of White House commitment.
Lawmakers — including Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee — are forcefully reminding the Bush administration and Homeland Security officials that Congress’ “directive” that the fence be built is not optional.
“We didn’t put the fence as a goal or an option or something that should be mixed with other solutions, we made it mandatory,” Mr. Hunter told The Washington Times yesterday.
“It is not an option for the Department of Homeland Security. What part of ‘shall’ don’t they understand?”
The $33.8 billion Homeland Security funding bill, signed by Mr. Bush with much fanfare during ceremonies in Arizona last week, proposed $1.2 billion for fencing along with lighting, roads, sensors, cameras and other security devices. It does not include actual authorization on how, when or where it should be built.
The House- and Senate-approved Secure Fence Act does that. It outlines specifics on the fence’s construction but has not been sent to the president, who has vowed to sign it.
Most proponents and opponents agree that the proposed $1.2 billion allocation is far short of the up to $12 billion it will take to build 700 miles of fencing, and some advocates have questioned both the White House and Congress’ commitment to it.
“Where the fence is concerned, to borrow a quote from the movies, ‘Show me the money,’” said Michael W. Cutler, a 31-year Immigration and Naturalization Service veteran who spent most of his career as a criminal investigator and intelligence specialist.
Members of Congress said they will have to revisit the funding every year.
“It’s one thing to authorize. It’s another thing to actually appropriate the money and do it,” Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and a supporter of fencing, said last week.
In a terse, three-paragraph note Friday to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Mr. Hunter noted that Homeland Security has been given flexibility on the exact location of the 700 miles of fencing, but that its actual construction “is not in dispute.”
“Congress has explicitly stated that border fencing is a critical component of our national border security plan,” wrote Mr. Hunter, the act’s lead proponent. He also reminded Mr. Chertoff that he is required within 60 days of the bill’s passage to submit to the House Appropriations Committee “an expenditure plan for establishing a security barrier along the border of the United States.”
In a report accompanying the bill, Congress said it willwithhold $950 million of the allocation until that plan is received and approved.
Yesterday, Mr. Hunter said Congress went through a similar fight with the Clinton administration in the 1990s, when he fought for fencing between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico.
“With each administration, you have a new set of administrators who don’t have a lengthy experience on the border and tend to be duly impressed with the sales pitches made by the high-tech companies,” he said. “Those sales pitches usually don’t include something as mundane as a fence. But fences work.”