WASHINGTON -- The House yesterday easily passed a bill calling for construction of lengthy sections of double- layered fences along the U.S. border with Mexico, sending the legislation to the Senate, which appears to be inclined to approve it and other security measures.
The House's 283-138 vote in favor of the measure demonstrated that though Congress remains deadlocked over what to do with the millions of illegal immigrants in the United States and on whether to establish a guest worker program, there is bipartisan support for significantly toughening border security.
House Republicans stressed that enforcement should come first, but they gave no indication of whether they would support broader immigration measures, such as a guest worker program, that are supported by the Senate, President Bush and many farmers nationwide.
House Republicans praised the fence bill as the first phase of a larger border security package that they also unveiled yesterday. It includes a measure that would make it a crime to dig border tunnels and another that would end an immigration provision that protects Salvadorans from deportation.
In the Los Angeles area, and increasingly in other parts of the nation, gangs with roots in El Salvador are a significant crime problem. The fence bill would require the construction of fences at Tecate and Calexico, Calif., and in heavily populated areas of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
The bill would require the Department of Homeland Security to prevent "all unlawful entries into the United States" within 18 months after the bill was enacted. It also would urge the department to allow Border Patrol agents to use greater force against smuggler vehicles and would order a study of security along the Canadian border.
House leaders said they were working with the Senate to consider how to get the measures to President Bush as quickly as possible. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said Congress should finish considering them all by the end of the month.
"Republicans believe we can have a no-penetration border," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican. Of the fence proposal, he said, "If we build it, they will no longer come illegally."
Asked when the House might back a guest worker program or other measures, Hastert said, "If we get a virtual no-penetration program on the border, then we can look at a lot of things."
Debate on overhauling immigration laws has been deadlocked for months.
Enforcement is a priority for the Senate, but many senators don't think it can work effectively unless it is accompanied by a guest worker program, which would meet the labor needs of farmers, restaurateurs and other business owners, and by a program to draw the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. into the legal system, a position favored by President Bush. Those provisions were in a bill approved by the Senate this year.
Many senators in both parties argue that if this year's Congress ignores those issues and focuses only on border security, it will have shirked its responsibilities and will have failed to adequately address the complexity of the immigration problem.
Even so, some senators expressed cautious support for the House border security package while pointing to elements they said it lacks.
"I'm not going to take a position against it," said Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican who helped write the Senate-passed immigration bill.
The House bill is "not comprehensive immigration reform," Martinez said. "It's not immigration reform; it's just security."
Democrats in both chambers dismissed the fence bill and other border measures as political ploys, particularly because the House has passed many of the measures, including the fence requirement.
"I think it's sad when House leadership has sought to take an important issue and turn it into a political platform," said Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Texas Democrat, who pointed out that thorny issues such as Medicare, Iraq and the Gulf Coast recovery after Hurricane Katrina were getting little Republican attention.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat, accused House Republicans of using immigration as a scare tactic, conflating terrorists with immigrants looking for work so that Americans would think that "Osama bin Laden is heading north in a sombrero."
Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.