Senate Backs Border Fence, Citizenship Chance For Illegal Immigrants

Legislators vote for 370 miles of fencing on Mexican border, vote against citizenship ban.

Two days after President George Bush attempted to bridge the gap between strict law-and-order House members and more moderate senators on the immigration issue in a prime-time address, the Senate voted Wednesday to endorse the carrot and the stick.

In his address, Bush asked for a clear path to citizenship for illegal immigrants as well as more security along the border with Mexico in the form of up to 6,000 National Guard troops (see "Bush Outlines Plan For Using Guard Troops To Secure Border "). The Senate responded with a 66-33 vote against a proposal that would have eliminated a chance at eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants who have been in the country for more than two years, according to The Associated Press.

Just minutes before, the Senate also voted 83-16 in favor of the construction of 370 miles of triple-layered fencing along the Southern border and 500 miles of vehicle barriers, the first major victory in two days of debate for conservatives seeking to insert more security measures into the legislation. Estimates of the cost of the fencing are roughly $3.2 million per mile, or more than $900 million for 300 miles.

Despite the compromise, the intense debate on immigration reform forced the White House to once again try and appease the concern of House Republicans, who are worried that the Bush plan favors amnesty for illegal immigrants; the House voted in December on a version of reform that would make illegal immigrants and the people who help them felons, as well as more than twice the amount of new border fencing (see "The Immigration Debate: Behind The Protests"). To ease their concerns, the AP reported that Bush sent Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove to a weekly closed-door meeting of House Republicans this week.

House member Steve King, an opponent of the Senate bill, was not impressed. "I didn't see it was a persuasive event," he said. "If it was about Karl Rove seeking to convince members of Congress after debate that he's right and we're wrong it would have been better not to have the meeting. ... The president doesn't want to enforce immigration law because he's afraid he'll inconvenience someone who wants to come into the country for a better life."

Press Secretary Tony Snow defended Bush against the criticism, saying that the president is "actually taking a more aggressive role on border security than the House itself took."

Republican senators also defended the action, with Senator Jeff Sessions saying that the construction of the additional barriers would send the signal that, "open-border days are over. ... Good fences make good neighbors, fences don't make bad neighbors."

The Senate measure also includes provisions to strengthen border security, create a new guest worker program and crack down on the hiring of illegal immigrants.

But the most controversial and central provision is one that will offer an eventual chance at citizenship for many of the estimated 11-12 million illegal immigrants already in the country. The bill would require that immigrants undergo background checks, pay back taxes and take other steps before they can become citizens.

While Bush has repeatedly said the plan does not amount to amnesty for illegal immigrants, some House Republicans weren't buying it. "Regardless of what the president says, what he is proposing is amnesty," said Representative James Sensenbrenner, who would lead House negotiators in efforts to draft a compromise immigration bill later this year.

Meanwhile, opponents in the Senate were preparing another slate of changes to the bill on Thursday in the hopes of chipping away at the reform bill, which appears likely to pass next week, according to the AP. Among the provisions was one sponsored by Republican James Inhofe that would make English the national language.