President Bush yesterday signed a law committing to build nearly 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border—although less than 24 hours earlier, he told conservative writers that he doesn’t see immigration as a major issue in this year’s campaign.
His signature, coming less than two weeks before the midterm elections, delighted congressional Republicans, who said it is about time that the government gets serious about border enforcement. But it infuriated Democrats and illegal alien advocacy groups, who said Mr. Bush has abandoned his earlier commitment to a more lenient immigration policy.
Congressional Republicans had fought hard to get a public-signing ceremony and see the law as a major campaign issue. Every major Republican congressional leader and many of the party’s top-tier candidates issued statements lauding the fence and criticizing Democrats for opposing the fence.
“Make no mistake: House Republicans are answering the public’s cry for border security,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, adding that the law provides a sharp distinction between Republicans and Democrats heading into the election. “Regrettably, House Democrats—over two-thirds of whom voted against the Secure Fence Act—have not only ignored the public’s cry for border security, but have forcefully attempted to thwart border-security efforts.”
Mr. Bush, however, said he sees the issue differently. He has avoided talking about immigration on the campaign trail and didn’t mention it while stumping in Iowa yesterday, instead returning to his themes of tax cuts and the war in Iraq as central to U.S. security.
The fence is an immensely popular idea in some areas. In recent opinion surveys from polling firm Strategic Vision, support for building a wall to prevent illegal immigration won 86 percent support among Pennsylvania voters and 82 percent in Michigan, though just 43 percent in Washington state.
Yesterday’s signing ceremony was the end of a two-year debate over immigration, won by House Republicans, who insisted on an enforcement-first policy.
The bill authorizes 698 miles of double-tiered fencing and support roads along some of the most porous parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, including much of Arizona. Currently, the border has 75 miles of fencing, with 42 miles under construction, according to the Bush administration.
Mr. Bush said his administration has taken other steps to clamp down on illegal immigration, including committing to hiring thousands more U.S. Border Patrol agents, buying more bed space to hold illegal aliens so they can be deported rather than continuing what critics have dubbed a “catch-and-release” policy and deploying the National Guard to assist the U.S. Border Patrol.
Illegal alien advocacy groups such as the National Council of La Raza and the Catholic Church had urged Mr. Bush to veto the bill, and the Mexican government has threatened to file a formal protest with the United Nations over the fence.
Even as Democrats attacked Republicans for allowing illegal immigration, most of them voted against the fence—the one bill that had a chance of passing this year.
Meanwhile, Republicans are sharply split.
Many are adamant about an enforcement-first policy, arguing that illegal immigration must be stopped before the nation deals with current illegal aliens or future workers.