Bush ready to OK border barrier

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President Bush will sign the bill to construct 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border if it is approved by the Senate, the White House said, as Congress continued yesterday drafting more legislation to combat illegal immigration.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Bush told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he would sign the bill if approved by the Senate, which spent the past two days debating whether they should even consider the fence bill.

Late yesterday, Democrats finally agreed to allow the bill to be taken up.

The House, meanwhile, approved a slew of new bills to speed the deportation of illegal aliens, outlaw tunneling under the border and close loopholes that allow criminal aliens to be released into the U.S.

“I think today’s actions here in the House on these three border-security bills demonstrate that House Republicans are serious about securing our borders and enforcing our laws,” House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said yesterday. “The American people have called on Congress to take immediate action, and we have.”

While the bills passed the House by wide margins yesterday, they face an increasingly dim future in the Senate, which has refused to approve major border-security legislation unless it is coupled with a guest-worker program and a direct path to citizenship for most of the illegal aliens currently in the U.S.

Senate Republicans have spent the past two weeks fighting among themselves over a White House proposal for dealing with terrorism suspects, and Democrats have stalled for more than a week approving the House bill to construct 700 miles of border fencing.

The most contentious immigration legislation approved by the House yesterday was a 277-140 vote to give state and local law enforcement more authority to combat illegal immigration. Also, it would close a decades-old loophole that bars federal officials from placing illegals from El Salvador into “expedited removal proceedings.” The provision, adopted during El Salvador’s 1980s civil war, means that suspected illegals often are freed back into the U.S. to await deportation proceedings but never heard from again.

The vast majority of Republicans in the chamber were joined by 62 Democrats to approve the changes in policy.

The House also overwhelmingly approved a bill to allow federal officials to detain illegals for more than six months if they are awaiting deportation. The same bill also would bar illegals from obtaining political asylum if they are found to be part of a “criminal street gang.” That bill passed on a 328-95 vote.

A third bill passed without objection and would close a loophole in current federal law. The Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2006 would criminalize the construction and financing of border tunnels with criminal penalties of up to 20 years’ imprisonment for persons who knowingly construct or help finance an unauthorized tunnel across a U.S. international border.

Under current law, it is illegal to cross over a border, but not under a border. In recent years, 39 such tunnels have been found along the southern border through which illegal aliens and large quantities of drugs are smuggled. That bill passed on a 422-0 vote.

While House Democrats say they would prefer a single comprehensive bill to address illegal immigration, many, including top party leaders, joined in supporting yesterday’s measures.

“Overwhelmingly in our caucus there is support for bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said yesterday. “Some of these things that they are putting forth piecemeal are awful; some are OK; but all of them are more acceptable in the context of comprehensive immigration reform. At the end of the day, if the issue is managed, there is a path to legalization, if the border is secure, if the workplace enforcement is there, if American workers are protected, then you can absorb some of these other initiatives they put forth. But standing alone, they don’t manage the issue.”

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