Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Senate last night gave final approval for construction of 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The bill passed on an 80-19 vote (see how your senator voted here).

One Republican, 17 Democrats and the chamber’s lone independent voted against the measure.

The bill “will have a real impact on our homeland security now and is a vital step toward fixing the problem of illegal immigration,” said Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, adding that Congress also has increased the number of Border Patrol agents and detention beds for apprehended illegal aliens.

“This legislation will take us much closer to the operational control of our border that our homeland security requires,” he said.

Eight Democratic senators who supported the bill last night switched their position from the previous day, when they voted to block the fence. They are Sens. Barbara Boxer of California, Thomas Carper of Delaware, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Barack Obama of Illinois and Charles E. Schumer of New York.

Many of the Democrats who joined Republicans on the vote either face close elections this November or represent mostly conservative states.

But for the most part, Democrats opposed the measure.

“We can build the tallest fence in the world, and it won’t fix our broken immigration system. Nor will it strengthen security at our borders,” Minority Leader Harry Reid said yesterday. “To do that, we need the kind of comprehensive reform that the Senate passed earlier this year.”

The “comprehensive” legislation supported by Mr. Reid would grant citizenship rights to about 10 million illegal aliens already in the country and create a guest-worker program that would usher hundreds of thousands of new foreign workers into the country. That Senate-approved bill also would allow illegals to collect Social Security benefits accrued while working illegally.

That Senate bill also has many Republican supporters. But, realizing the comprehensive bill would not pass anytime soon, they supported last night’s fence bill with the belief that at the very least the border should be secured.

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said yesterday that he has long been a supporter of “comprehensive” legislation and still is.

“The place to start with that is the construction of fencing and other barriers to prevent illegal entry,” he said.

House Republicans, who approved the fence bill earlier this month, applauded yesterday’s Senate action.

But several other border security measures that the House approved this month essentially died on the Senate floor last night, when lawmakers were scheduled to adjourn to campaign for the November elections.

Among them was a bill to require voters to provide a valid photo identification before participating in federal elections. The Federal Election Integrity Act was approved on a nearly party-line vote in the House. Senate Democrats have said they are adamantly opposed to such legislation.

Also left incomplete by the Senate last night were House-passed bills to:

• Give state and local law enforcement more authority to combat illegal entry.

• Close a decades-old loophole that bars federal officials from placing illegal aliens 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 United States to await deportation proceedings but never are heard from again.

• Allow federal officials to detain illegal aliens 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.”

• Criminalize the construction and financing of border tunnels with criminal penalties of up to 20 years’ imprisonment for those 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.

Still, Senate Republicans said yesterday they had made great strides this year in securing the border.

“This bill continues a significant commitment to protecting our borders and improving our overall national security,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican who has helped lead the effort for tighter border security.

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