Friday, October 27, 2006

President Bush yesterday signed a law committing to build nearly 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border — although less than 24 hours earlier, he told conservative writers that he doesn’t see immigration as a major issue in this year’s campaign.

His signature, coming less than two weeks before the midterm elections, delighted congressional Republicans, who said it is about time that the government gets serious about border enforcement. But it infuriated Democrats and illegal alien advocacy groups, who said Mr. Bush has abandoned his earlier commitment to a more lenient immigration policy.

“This bill will help protect the American people. This bill will make our borders more secure,” Mr. Bush said at a morning ceremony with top Republicans in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. “It is an important step toward immigration reform.”

Congressional Republicans had fought hard to get a public-signing ceremony and see the law as a major campaign issue. Every major Republican congressional leader and many of the party’s top-tier candidates issued statements lauding the fence and criticizing Democrats for opposing the fence.

“Make no mistake: House Republicans are answering the public’s cry for border security,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, adding that the law provides a sharp distinction between Republicans and Democrats heading into the election. “Regrettably, House Democrats — over two-thirds of whom voted against the Secure Fence Act — have not only ignored the public’s cry for border security, but have forcefully attempted to thwart border-security efforts.”

Mr. Bush, however, said he sees the issue differently. He has avoided talking about immigration on the campaign trail and didn’t mention it while stumping in Iowa yesterday, instead returning to his themes of tax cuts and the war in Iraq as central to U.S. security.

In an interview with conservative columnists Wednesday, Mr. Bush was asked why he didn’t campaign on immigration, and he said it doesn’t appear to be a high priority for voters.

“Immigration is an issue. I don’t hear it being discussed much out there,” he said, according to a White House transcript posted by National Review Online.

That stands in stark contrast to what Republicans report from the campaign trail, where candidates from first-timers to the speaker of the House say they hear about it.

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, recalled a forum in a park in Geneseo, a town in his district, and said that other than one woman, of the 150 constituents who showed up, “every one of those people said secure the border first. It was amazing.”

The fence is an immensely popular idea in some areas. In recent opinion surveys from polling firm Strategic Vision, support for building a wall to prevent illegal immigration won 86 percent support among Pennsylvania voters and 82 percent in Michigan, though just 43 percent in Washington state.

Yesterday’s signing ceremony was the end of a two-year debate over immigration, won by House Republicans, who insisted on an enforcement-first policy.

The bill authorizes 698 miles of double-tiered fencing and support roads along some of the most porous parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, including much of Arizona. Currently, the border has 75 miles of fencing, with 42 miles under construction, according to the Bush administration.

Mr. Bush said his administration has taken other steps to clamp down on illegal immigration, including committing to hiring thousands more U.S. Border Patrol agents, buying more bed space to hold illegal aliens so they can be deported rather than continuing what critics have dubbed a “catch-and-release” policy and deploying the National Guard to assist the U.S. Border Patrol.

Illegal alien advocacy groups such as the National Council of La Raza and the Catholic Church had urged Mr. Bush to veto the bill, and the Mexican government has threatened to file a formal protest with the United Nations over the fence.

Democrats said the bill signing was all about politics and ridiculed covering just 35 percent of the 1,951-mile-long border. They said that the border situation has only gotten worse under Republican leadership and that Mr. Bush blew a chance to do something about it.

“This new law is nothing more than a cynical, vain attempt by Republicans to try to show some accomplishment on border security where they can claim none,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat. “This new law is a quintessential example of the Republican Party’s political grandstanding and empty rhetoric. The truth is, this Republican Congress has failed to even fund the construction of this 700-mile fence.”

But if Democrats said the bill was pure politics, Republicans said it was good politics.

“Although I’m leaving the Senate in fulfillment of the pledge I made 12 years ago, I’ll be fighting to ensure that every inch of the fence authorized today is [funded] fully and constructed promptly … and so should my fellow conservatives throughout America,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican and a potential presidential candidate, wrote on his blog at

Still, it’s a complicated issue for both political parties.

Even as Democrats attacked Republicans for allowing illegal immigration, most of them voted against the fence — the one bill that had a chance of passing this year.

Meanwhile, Republicans are sharply split.

Many are adamant about an enforcement-first policy, arguing that illegal immigration must be stopped before the nation deals with current illegal aliens or future workers.

But Mr. Bush and a minority of Republicans want to couple enforcement with a plan to offer citizenship rights to most illegal aliens.

“There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic pass to citizenship for every illegal immigrant and a program of mass deportation. And I look forward to working with Congress to find that middle ground,” Mr. Bush said at yesterday’s ceremony.

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