The border security deal senators struck this week does not call for 700 miles of new fencing, but rather for 700 miles in total — a figure the Homeland Security Department already claims it's near to completing.
But what that fencing means, and whether it ever actually has to be built, is now a subject of heated debate as senators prepare to vote on the proposal Monday evening.
Analysts who have looked at the new 1,200-page piece of legislation, which was presented to the Senate Friday afternoon, say it gives the administration a waiver to decide not to build the fence. But senators who wrote the deal say they believe the full fence will be built.
"I don't know how to make it any clearer. If the Hoeven-Corker amendment becomes law, 10 years must pass and there must be 700 miles of pedestrian fencing and 20,000 additional border patrol agents along the southern border before a Green Card is issued," said Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican.
Mr. Corker said the discretion lies in where to put the fence, but not in whether to have 700 miles of full pedestrian fencing.
It's the latest round in what's been a decade-long fight to wall off parts of the U.S.-Mexico border.
When Congress passed the Secure Fence Act in 2006 it called for a double-tier fence to be built along 700 miles of the border. But a year later, senators slipped language into a spending bill to water that requirement down, giving Homeland Security officials the leeway to determine how much and what type of fencing.
As of early this year, the department had built just 36 miles of two-tier fencing, 316 miles of single-tier fence, and another 299 miles of vehicle barriers that still allow pedestrians and wildlife to cross, but is meant to keep out smuggling vehicles.
To some, that counted as full fencing, while others said it fell short of what Congress had intended.
Late last week, senators working on a compromise border security deal announced a plan that had promised what seemed to be an additional 700 miles of fencing
"DHS must build 700 miles of fencing. That is double the amount required in the underlying bill, which calls for 350 miles of fencing. So 700 miles of fencing — that compares to about 42 miles of fencing we have in place right now," said Sen. John Hoeven, chief sponsor of the new proposal.
But the legislation they wrote only calls for 700 miles total — chiefly by going back and rebuilding areas where there are already vehicle barriers or single-tier fence.
The legislation now reads: "The secretary will certify that there is in place along the southern border no fewer than 700 miles of pedestrian fencing which will include replacement of all currently existing vehicle fencing on non-tribal lands on the southern border with pedestrian fencing where possible, and after this has been accomplished may include a second layer of pedestrian fencing in those locations along the southern border which the secretary deems necessary or appropriate."
Some of the existing vehicle barriers are in remote desert regions where the Border Patrol says pedestrian fencing doesn't make sense, and where environmentalists say it would be disastrous for wildlife and for the fragile terrain.
But backers say the fencing is part of the price that's necessary to gain trust that the government is serious about stopping a new wave of illegal immigration.
"The Republican Border Surge Plan is based on ideas border patrol agents and others know to be effective and that conservatives have been pursuing for many years," said Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and one of the authors of the original bipartisan bill, who'd said he wanted to strengthen the security aspects.
The new deal was struck by Mr. Hoeven and Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, who were looking for a way to strengthen the border security provisions so they could vote for the legislation, which would grant legal status to 7.7 million illegal immigrants.
Nine other Republicans and four Democrats signed onto the border security plan, saying it would help earn their vote.
Whether the plan will be successful has been hotly debated over the last couple of days, with some immigrant-rights groups demanding the Senate reject the amendment as extreme and unnecessary.
Senators are being asked to vote on a subject that, to many of them, is unfamiliar.
A Washington Times survey of senators earlier this year found that only about a third have been to the southwest border to study security during their time in office. Neither Mr. Hoeven nor Mr. Corker had been, nor had most of the other senators who have signed on as co-sponsors of the new amendment.
The Senate will vote on the deal Monday evening and, if it passes, it should clear the way for a final vote later this week on the full bill.
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