The House called for construction of a fence along parts of the U.S. border from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf of Mexico as a bill aimed at shutting down illegal immigration moved forward Thursday.
The two-layered fence, about 700 miles long, would be built in parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The provisions, passed 260-159, put priority on construction near Laredo, Texas. The city is across the border from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, where warring drug cartels have been blamed for more than 140 murders this year.
Supporters said the fence would cut down on crime and drug smuggling, but Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said it would create “the largest gated community in the Western hemisphere.”
The House voted 220-206 to approve a parliamentary measure needed to move ahead on the bill, but only after GOP leaders appealed in a private meeting for party unity. Some members were threatening to vote against the bill if it did not include a guest worker program, while others opposed adding such a program.
Late Thursday, Republicans were still gauging support among their ranks for the bill.
Fight over amnesty amendment
A few were unhappy that a provision denying citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants in the United States was not among the first 15 amendments getting a vote. The contentious measure could be offered Friday.
“Those people who are against this bill don’t want any changes in the existing system except perhaps amnesty, or, excuse me, ‘earned legalization,’ or perhaps citizenship for those who have broken the law,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a chief sponsor and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Earlier on a voice vote, House members approved an amendment requiring Border Patrol uniforms to be made in the United States. Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., said they are now made in Mexico, possibly posing security problems.
Supporters of the overall bill defended their decision to cut off the flow of illegal entrants before turning to the tougher issues of a guest worker program or other means to fill the jobs that now attract millions of undocumented workers.
Almost all Democrats, and several border-state Republicans such as Rep. Jeff Flake and fellow Arizonan Jim Kolbe, pushed for a more comprehensive measure that would deal with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States.
The GOP bill “does nothing to solve the real problems of illegal immigration,” Kolbe said. “In fact, it’s worse than nothing.”
White House backs bill
The White House said in a statement that it strongly supported the House bill, while adding that it “remains committed to comprehensive immigration reform, including a temporary worker program that avoids amnesty.”
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., says the guest worker issue will be on the table when the Senate takes up immigration overhaul in February. The main dispute is over whether the estimated 6 million illegal workers should have to leave the country before applying for a temporary worker program.
The border security aspects, King said, include requiring the Homeland Security Department to employ the personnel and technology needed to secure the border; ending the “catch-and-release” policy for non-Mexicans; and requiring the Pentagon and Homeland Security to come up with a common plan on the use of military technology to stop illegal crossings.
The bill also outlines increased penalties for smugglers and those re-entering illegally; authorizes police along the border to enforce immigration law; and makes illegal presence in the United States, now a civil offense, a misdemeanor crime.
The bill originally made illegal presence a felon. Sensenbrenner’s spokesman, Jeff Lungren, said that was being changed because felonies require jury trials and consume too many resources.
Most significantly, the bill requires all employers in the country, more than 7 million, to check the legal status of workers.