A week into the immigration debate, the Senate has finally set up showdowns Tuesday afternoon on some of the biggest questions, including whether to build the full 700-mile fence Congress approved seven years ago, but never followed through on.
Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, has offered an amendment that would require 350 miles of two-tier border fencing be built before illegal immigrants can gain legal status, and for another 350 miles to be built before they can get green cards.
Seven years ago, during a previous immigration debate, Congress — including then-Sen. Barack Obama — voted overwhelmingly to build that much two-tier fencing along the 1,950-mile U.S.-Mexico border. But in 2007 Congress quietly backed off and gave the Bush administration the authority to cut the number of miles, and to scrap the two-tier fence.
Instead, the border now has 651 miles of barriers, and only 352 miles of that is an actual fence to keep pedestrians out. The other 299 miles are vehicle blockades that still allow wildlife, and people, to cross unhindered.
Homeland security officials say they are comfortable with the amount and mix of fencing, but many lawmakers say more is needed — and Mr. Thune’s amendment will give them a chance to have a say.
Still, it is expected to fail as the Gang of Eight senators who wrote the immigration bill defends the core of its deal, which is to offer quick legal status to illegal immigrants but withhold full citizenship rights until after more money is spent on security. They argue that waiting until 350 miles of full fence is built would delay legalization too long.
Senators will also vote Tuesday on three other amendments: One would expand immigration benefits for adoptees, another would add Indian tribe representatives to a border oversight panel, and a third would stop any legalization until the government completes a biometric entry-exit system that Congress first demanded in 1996, but which is still undone.