The Senate Judiciary Committee agreed yesterday to erect new fencing along parts of the Arizona-Mexico border but stopped far short of a House proposal to build more fences over a wider area.
Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and a member of the committee, pushed through the amendment to the massive immigration reform legislation being debated by the Senate.
The Kyl proposal calls for 200 miles of fencing and vehicle barriers along Arizona’s border with Mexico, but no new fences in California, New Mexico and Texas.
“It will make it much more difficult for smugglers and illegal aliens to gain entry, significantly reduce crime rates in border towns, and preserve fragile desert lands and archeological resources which are impacted by illegal pedestrian and vehicular traffic,” he said.
The amendment passed on a voice vote.
In December, the House voted to build 700 miles of fencing in all four states that border Mexico, a proposal that even conservative Senate Republicans oppose on the grounds that it would be too expensive. Instead, they favor a “virtual” border with sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles, increased border patrol agents and fencing in high population or high-traffic areas.
Yesterday’s Judiciary meeting was the second day of negotiations over the immigration bill. Like the first day, yesterday’s hearing put off several of the more contentious issues such as President Bush’s proposed guest-worker program.
Last year, Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said he would move ahead with legislation that dealt only with border security.
But he allowed Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and Judiciary Committee chairman, to offer a version that includes a guest-worker program with the understanding that if Mr. Specter’s panel didn’t complete a bill after five days of committee negotiations, Mr. Frist would move ahead with a security-only bill.
While panel members say they are optimistic that they will finish the bill, negotiations have been slow. On Wednesday, there often weren’t enough members present to vote on amendments.
Yesterday, things were slow at times such as when Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, accused Republicans of conducting a “filibuster by professed confusion” by repeatedly asking him to explain his proposed amendment.
One area Republicans on the committee were adamant about was the need to start detaining illegals crossing the border with Mexico who aren’t from Mexico. Currently, many of those crossers are caught, processed and released with the understanding that they will show up for an administrative hearing at some future date. In most cases, however, they never show.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, worried that detaining them all would be unworkable given the shortage of detention facilities.
“Well, they’re going to need to find the additional facilities,” replied Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican. “Otherwise the system is a mockery, it’s a joke, it’s not a legal system at all.”
It was a point, Mr. Sessions and other Republicans agreed, that the Bush administration has been slow to realize.
“It cannot be allowed to continue, which I think the administration has finally come to recognize,” Mr. Sessions said.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and usually a loyal Bush ally, agreed with Mr. Sessions.
“I’m a little bit puzzled by the administration’s embracing of this because, frankly, the president’s budget does not deal realistically with” the lack of facilities, Mr. Cornyn said. “The president’s budget only provides … 27,500 beds in fiscal year 2007. So the numbers don’t line up very well.”
At that, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who often assails Mr. Bush for cutting taxes during a time of deficit spending, groaned at Mr. Cornyn and said sarcastically, “Picky, picky.”
Democrats also continued their impassioned opposition to making it a felony to be an illegal alien. Mrs. Feinstein said it opens the illegals to blackmail and a host of other underworld threats.
At one point, Mr. Specter stopped Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, to ask: “Is there any doubt that when they’re in the country illegally — having entered illegally or overstayed their visa — that they’re in violation of the law?”
“Well, no,” Mr. Durbin said. “There’s no doubt about it.”