The House voted last night to build nearly 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border as it began the first major floor debate in years on enforcing immigration laws.
The vote, 260-159, came on an amendment to a border-security and employer-verification bill that is scheduled for a final vote today.
Republican leaders appeared to have cleared a remaining hurdle last night by promising to remove language that said there should be a legal means for foreign workers to come and go.
Some Republicans had argued that the provision, which was nonbinding, was a place-holder to attach a guest-worker plan in the future and thus was a deal-killer.
On the fence construction vote, 49 Democrats joined 211 Republicans in supporting it while 12 Republicans joined the Democrats and one independent in voting against it.
Supporters of the fence said stopping the flow of illegal aliens is critical to dealing with illegal immigration.
“We need to stop the bleeding before we can stitch the wound,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey, Georgia Republican.
But Democrats said it will hurt commerce, irk neighboring countries and fail to keep people out.
“People will escape from Mexico and the southern border. This will only injure the relationships and cause no greater security,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, Texas Democrat.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and the amendment’s chief sponsor, said the success of a fence near San Diego convinced Congress and voters that the concept works.
“Democrat and Republican, the people agree the fence has worked,” he said. “It’s cut down on murders, it’s cut down on smuggling, and it’s brought order on both sides of the border.”
Mr. Hunter’s plan calls for 698 miles of fence at five locations along the 1,940-mile border. The barrier would be modeled from the San Diego fence, a two-layered reinforced fence with roads, surveillance cameras and sensors. Cost estimates run from $1.5 million to $2 million per mile.
Polls show a fence has overwhelming support among voters.
But Mexican President Vicente Fox this week criticized the idea, calling it “disgraceful and shameful” and saying it “will not protect the economy of the United States.” He said a fence would violate migrants’ rights and instead repeated his call for Congress to pass a bill to legalize illegal aliens.
In a body where ideas usually take years to germinate, supporters said they were amazed at how quickly the fence idea grew from an idea that a few members were talking about this summer.
“How quick a time frame for this to go from a thought to all of the sudden an accepted amendment,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican.
The House bill would repeat last year’s call for more U.S. Border Patrol agents, expand expedited removal of illegal aliens, allow sheriffs in border counties to help federal immigration authorities and require employers to verify employees’ Social Security numbers through a national database.
Lawmakers and advocacy groups on both sides of the issue agreed that the bill never will become law as is, and even Republican leaders said it must include a guest-worker plan by the time it gets to President Bush.
“As we move this legislation to the president’s desk, it should include comprehensive reform,” Rep. David Dreier, California Republican and chairman of the Rules Committee, said on the floor.
The Senate is expected to begin debate early next year on enforcement of immigration laws, a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens.
Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican and a strong supporter of both a guest-worker plan and the legalization of illegal aliens, said the House has failed by not doing the same.
“It’s a shame for the House to rely on the Senate for what we have to do,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think the government could successfully enforce the bill without a guest-worker program anyway.
But Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, said he has a “handshake” deal with House Republican leaders that they won’t allow a guest-worker plan to be attached to this bill.
“I don’t think the leadership will allow a bill to come to the floor that comes back from the Senate with guest-worker” proposals, he said.
Many Democrats and some Republicans say that enforcement alone would shut down entire industries because they are so dependent on illegal employees and that the bill is unfair to an estimated 11 million illegal aliens who want a chance to work.
“This bill steps on the spirit of Christmas for 11 million people,” said Rep. Sam Farr, California Democrat.
Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican and a partner with Mr. Flake on a bill to create a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, said he urged leaders to pull the bill until next year, when the issue can be debated in full.