Border Fence Becomes Law

Republican President George W. Bush entered this election year with a plan to force Congress to do something that the majority of Republican members did not want to do: enact an amnesty for illegal aliens.

The President had a strategy for making this happen. The House had passed a tough immigration-reform bill in December 2005. It aimed at two general goals: securing the border and cracking down on employers of illegal aliens to shut off the jobs magnet that attracts many illegals across the border.

By this means, House Republicans hoped to diminish through attrition the number of illegal aliens already here.

Conservative Insurgents

A key provision in the House bill directed that “at least” two layers of sturdy steel fencing be constructed along the 700 miles of border that currently encompass the major smuggling routes into the U.S. The bill specified that the fencing would come with “lighting, cameras, sensors” and roads to be used by the Border Patrol manning the fence.

Bush’s plan was to hold the House bill hostage until Congress also passed the illegal-alien amnesty he wanted. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona joined with Democratic Sen. Teddy Kennedy (Mass.) to promote the President’s scheme in the Senate. They advanced a plan featuring Bush’s amnesty.

The idea was that the Senate would pass the amnesty, and then there would be a conference with the House, in which House Republicans would be forced to accept amnesty if they wanted the fence, the crackdown on employers and the other security measures in their own bill.

But it didn’t happen that way. Bush did not stay the course. He got rolled by a House Republican insurgency.

In May, the Senate passed its immigration bill, sponsored by Republican Senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Mel Martinez of Florida. It included Bush’s amnesty.

In articles in Human Events (May 22 and June 5), Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation estimated that the Senate bill would add 66 million new immigrants to the U.S. population over 20 years and would result in the largest expansion of the welfare state in 35 years.

Rather than join the Senate in a conference on this bill, House Republicans went to war against it. They held hearings in Washington, D.C., and across the country, highlighting the bill’s faults and publicizing the need for tough border-security measures—without an amnesty.

Lacking the presidential support needed to enact their full immigration-enforcement program, House Republicans decided this fall to pass a separate bill: the Secure Fence Act (H.R. 6061), ordering the Department of Homeland Security to build the 700 miles of double fencing along the border.

On September 14, the bill passed the House, 283 to 138. Democratic leaders adamantly opposed it, and House Democrats voted against it, 131 to 64. Only six House Republicans opposed the bill.

Backed against a wall, so to speak, the Senate passed the bill, 80 to 19. Only one Republican—Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island—joined 18 Senate Democrats in opposition.

No sooner had the fence bill passed than some Senate Republicans started suggesting that the 700 miles of fence still might not be built. “It’s one thing to authorize. It’s another thing to actually appropriate the money and do it,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas told the Washington Post.

“I think there’ll be fencing where the Department [of Homeland Security] feels that it makes sense,” Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire told the paper. He estimated that “at least 300 to 400 miles” would be built.

But House Republicans did not stop fighting once they got the bill through Congress.

House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, a California Republican whose district sits on the border, had been the original sponsor of the fence legislation when it was added as an amendment to the overall House immigration bill that had passed in December 2005. On October 6, he sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff informing him that the legislation did not suggest that the administration construct the fence, it ordered the administration to construct the fence.

“As a lead proponent of H.R. 6061, the Secure Fence Act, I am writing to clarify the intention of the legislation,” Hunter wrote. “Media reports have recently suggested that the directive for fence construction in the bill is optional. That is not the case. HR 6061 clearly states: ‘The Secretary of Homeland Security shall provide for at least two layers of reinforced fencing, the installation of additional physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras and sensors.’ While I worked with House and Senate leadership in reaching an agreement that will allow your department flexibility on the exact location of the at least 700 miles of fencing, its actual construction is not in dispute.”

To ensure Chertoff moved forward with the fence, Hunter noted that the fiscal 2007 Homeland Security funding law included language that will withhold $950 million from the department unless it presents a plan for building the fence within 60 days.

The day after Hunter sent Chertoff this letter, Hunter called a press conference at the U.S.-Mexico border. “The fence will be built,” Hunter told reporters. “This is not a recommendation. It’s a mandate by Congress.”

Bush started making surrender noises. At an October 12 press conference, he was asked whether he was going to build a real fence or a virtual one. “We are going to do both,” he said. “We’re just going to make sure we build it in spots where it works.”

Last week, Bush signed the Secure Fence Act into law.

Some have objected that the bill does not go far enough, since the Mexican border is 2,000, not 700, miles long. They say, plausibly, that illegals will still sneak into the U.S. where double fencing and patrol roads are not built. Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R.-N.Y.), sponsor of the fence law, answered this objection in House floor debate.

“We now have a 700-mile fence,” King said. “This is something which clearly can be done. It will work. Is it the entire fence? Absolutely not. More has to be done. But, in the meantime, let’s show progress. Let’s get this done.”

If Republicans retain control of the House, chairmen like Hunter and King will force Bush to build the fence already enacted in law and will push for additional fencing in new laws. A Republican House majority will continue to oppose amnesty.

However, if the Democrats take the House, they will not provide full funding for the fence and they will let Bush off the hook on building it. Illegal aliens will continue to flood unimpeded across our border. New House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic colleagues in the House will join with John McCain and Teddy Kennedy in the Senate to give Bush the illegal-alien amnesty he seeks—and that a House Republican majority stubbornly refused to give him.