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Sunday, September 17, 2006

House passes border fence

The House yesterday easily approved building 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border in an effort to get major border-security legislation on President Bush's desk before November's elections.

"The time to address the border-security emergency is now, before Congress leaves for the November election," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, applauding the Republican-backed measure and introducing a slate of new border-security measures that he hopes to pass this month.

Yesterday's border-fence bill was approved on a 283-138 vote. The vast majority of House Republicans were joined by 64 Democrats to support the measure. Six Republicans voted against it.

In addition to building double-layered fences along 700 miles of the southern border, the Secure Fence Act also changes Border Patrol policy to allow agents to forcibly disable fleeing vehicles along the border. The measure would also deploy cameras, ground sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor the border.

Democrats dismissed the vote as "another political gimmick" by House Republicans who passed a tough border-security bill last year but have since been unable to persuade the Republican Senate to take it up. The Senate remains intent on its own bill that tightens border security but at the same time grants citizenship rights to some 10 million illegal aliens and creates a guest-worker program that will usher hundreds of thousands more foreign laborers into the U.S.

Yesterday, House Democrats called the 700-mile fence a new "Berlin wall" and expressed concern that it would drive illegal crossers deep into the dangerous desert in search of an unimpeded crossing. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, California Democrat, added, "It does nothing to secure our northern border."

Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr., Virginia Republican, strongly supported the measure. "It's about a thousand miles short of where it ought to be," he said, "but I'll take 700 miles."

When the House last year approved its border-security legislation, it included almost exactly the same fencing. The fence came to symbolize what many Democrats said was an unforgiving bill. They said the fence proved that Republicans harbored a hostility toward immigrants.

But by yesterday, more than 20 Democrats had switched their position to support the border fence -- including several who face tough elections this fall.

Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., the Tennessee Democrat who is running for the Senate, said, "For the country to be secure, we have to have control over who gets in and who's allowed to stay."

Asked why he opposed the fence last year, he said the current proposal was "more comprehensive." Mr. Ford bristled at the question of whether his change of heart had anything to do with his upcoming statewide election in a state that polls show supports tough immigration policies.

After the vote yesterday, Rep. Alan B. Mollohan, a West Virginia Democrat who also switched his vote, was waiting in an out-of-the-way hallway beside a bank of elevators.

When asked by a reporter why he switched his vote, Mr. Mollohan first responded, "How did you find me?"

After gathering his thoughts for a moment, he said he supported yesterday's fence bill because it "makes a statement for consideration" of increased funding and even tougher illegal-immigration enforcement measures. Mr. Mollohan, who faces a challenge from the right this fall, not only voted against the fence last year but also voted against the entire House border-security bill.

Asked if his election in two months had anything to do with his position switch, Mr. Mollohan replied: "The election two months away has something to do with everything we do up here."

Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, also supported yesterday's bill after opposing the fence and the border-security bill last year.

During the August recess, he said he attended four town-hall meetings where the issue of illegal immigration dominated voter concerns. "The people who spoke up were almost unanimously opposed to illegal immigration."

Still, he said, the upcoming elections had nothing to do with his change of heart on the issue.

"Voting against the fences would have helped me more politically," Mr. Moran said.

After yesterday's House vote, Senate Republicans remain uncommitted to bringing the measure to the floor for a final vote, where many think it would be approved. Republican leaders said they are considering attaching the bill to other must-pass legislation to get it through the Senate.

Washington Times
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