The U.S. Senate agreed Wednesday to build at least 370 miles of fencing and 500 miles of vehicle barriers at strategic points along the U.S.-Mexican border, a concession to conservative House Republicans and a clear sign that President Bush’s Monday night speech has spurred action on Congress’ stalled immigration reform efforts.
By an 86-13 vote, the Senate approved the amendment from Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., which allows Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to build triple-layered fencing throughout highly traveled corridors used by smugglers and illegal immigrants.
The measure made no mention of a 22-mile stretch of fence through sensitive lands near Campo, which the House had approved in December to the alarm of local conservationists and environmentalists. The fence’s fate will likely be decided when senators and congressmen convene a joint conference to reconcile differences between their legislation.
But even conservative House Republicans struck a conciliatory tone Wednesday. Joe Kasper, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a fence supporter, said it’s still hard to predict how close the immigration issue is to a resolution, given the Senate’s consideration of a guest-worker program.
“Congressman Hunter of course will continue supporting the more expansive of the two [fences],” Kasper said in an e-mail. “However, he is certainly pleased to see that the Senate overwhelmingly recognizes the need for additional border infrastructure.”
Sessions invoked poet Robert Frost in a news release touting the legislative breakthrough.
“Good fences make good neighbors,” Sessions said. “Just go to the San Diego border and talk to the people there. There was lawlessness, drug dealing, gangs and economic depression on both sides of the border. But when they built a fence and brought that section of the border under control, the economy on both sides of the fence blossomed, and crime fell. The fence improved San Diego and it will improve other parts of the border.”
The Senate had been expected to endorse some fencing as a concession to conservative House members who approved 700 miles of fencing in their own December legislation. The House bill would make many illegal immigrants felons, prompting protests throughout the country. The Senate’s action virtually ensures that Congress’s final immigration reform bill will include more fencing. But its length, and other issues, must still be resolved during negotiations in a joint conference.
“Clearly there are constituencies that want a wall that’s 2,000 miles long,” said David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. “It’s a game of political guessmanship to figure out what’s going to be the final number.”
The Senate bill grants Chertoff the authority to build the 370-mile fence along corridors he determines to have the heaviest drug-smuggling and immigration traffic. It also calls for the replacement of old and deteriorating fencing throughout several Arizona border cities. The 370 mile total includes already constructed sections in Tucson and Yuma and a 14-mile stretch between Tijuana and San Diego.
The House bill has worried San Diego conservationists and environmentalists. It calls for 22 miles of triple-layered fence near Campo in eastern San Diego County. The barrier would be a football field wide: two 15-foot tall mesh fences separated by a gravel road for Border Patrol vehicles. The Senate amendment does not mention the Campo-area fence, which would stretch 11 miles on either side of Tecate.
A coalition of groups working under the Las Californias Binational Conservation Initiative have sought to preserve land near Campo to allow for the free movement across the border of animals such as mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes. Two of three key links the initiative has identified would be severed by the House fence.
Mike White, the San Diego director of the Oregon-based Conservation Biology Institute, a participant in the Las Californias initiative, said the Senate may have helped the project dodge a bullet, but that won’t be certain until the final immigration reform bill emerges from the joint conference.
“The critical discussion we should be having is not just the magic number,” White said, “but how it’s positioned. It’s the bigger picture and strategy, where we can really give everybody something that they need.”