WASHINGTON -- The Senate overwhelmingly approved a measure yesterday to build at least 370 miles of double- and triple-layered fences along the U.S.-Mexico border, moving its immigration bill closer to the enforcement-focused approach favored by conservatives.
While parts of the California and Texas border are now fenced, the bill would replace and extend fencing along the Arizona border where illegal crossings have surged to the nation's highest levels.
Should the illegal entries shift to other places, the bill authorizes fence construction in those areas. It also calls for erecting 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the Southwest border.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who sponsored the provisions, said that building the fencing would send "a signal to the world that our border is not open, it is closed."
He also said, "Good fences make good neighbors; fences don't make bad neighbors."
Some senators questioned the cost - an estimated $1 billion - and the implications.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, warned that the measure, added as an amendment to the immigration bill the Senate has been debating on and off for more than a month, would be "a down payment for a fence of 2,000 miles. That would be the end result."
He also expressed concern that the fencing would sour U.S. relations with Mexico.
The amendment passed 83-16; Barbara A. Mikulski supported the amendment while Paul S. Sarbanes voted against it. Both are Maryland Democrats.
President Bush travels today to Arizona to promote his plan to use 6,000 National Guard troops to help border patrol agents in the effort to stem illegal immigration.
The fence amendment was one of several added to the Senate legislation yesterday that could improve the chances that a final bill overhauling the nation's immigration policy would pass muster with conservatives and be sent to Bush to be signed into law.
Bush has put the prestige of his office behind a broad overhaul of immigration policy that the Senate is pursuing. Along with the border security measure, the Senate bill contains legalization provisions for most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S. and a temporary guest worker program - a proposal Bush has endorsed.
But Republicans who control the House have said they are reluctant to back a measure that goes beyond toughening border security. A core of the GOP House members are adamantly opposed to any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, castigating such a proposal as "amnesty" for lawbreakers.
Bush and supporters of the Senate bill dispute that categorization, noting that the legislation includes financial penalties for illegal immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship.
But the daunting task of persuading the House to back the broader bill that Bush wants was made clear yesterday in brief comments by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican.
"Regardless of what the president says, what he is proposing is amnesty," said Sensenbrenner, who as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee would lead the chamber's negotiators in any attempt to draft a compromise bill.
Another of the amendments added to the Senate bill with an eye to building conservative support for it would decrease by an estimated 500,00 the number of illegal immigrants who could pursue U.S. citizenship.
Under this amendment, the citizenship provision would not apply to those illegal immigrants who have been convicted of felonies, have repeatedly committed misdemeanors or have skipped hearings on their deportation.
Another of the amendments adopted yesterday would tighten restrictions in the bill's temporary worker program. It would require the Department of Labor to certify that there is not a U.S. worker who is able, willing, qualified and available to fill the job that is offered to a foreign worker. It passed narrowly, 50-48, in a vote that split largely down party lines.
Even as it gave the bill a more conservative slant with these changes, the Senate stood by the multipronged approach to immigration reform by easily defeating an amendment to delete the measure's legalization provisions.
Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.