In Border Fence’s Path, Congressional Roadblocks

Spencer S. Hsu, Washington Post, October 6, 2006

No sooner did Congress authorize construction of a 700-mile fence on the U.S.-Mexico border last week than lawmakers rushed to approve separate legislation that ensures it will never be built, at least not as advertised, according to Republican lawmakers and immigration experts.

GOP leaders have singled out the fence as one of the primary accomplishments of the recently completed session. Many lawmakers plan to highlight their $1.2 billion down payment on its construction as they campaign in the weeks before the midterm elections.

But shortly before recessing late Friday, the House and Senate gave the Bush administration leeway to distribute the money to a combination of projects—not just the physical barrier along the southern border. The funds may also be spent on roads, technology and “tactical infrastructure” to support the Department of Homeland Security’s preferred option of a “virtual fence.”

What’s more, in a late-night concession to win over wavering Republicans, GOP congressional leaders pledged in writing that Native American tribes, members of Congress, governors and local leaders would get a say in “the exact placement” of any structure, and that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff would have the flexibility to use alternatives “when fencing is ineffective or impractical.”

The loopholes leave the Bush administration with authority to decide where, when and how long a fence will be built, except for small stretches east of San Diego and in western Arizona. Homeland Security officials have proposed a fence half as long, lawmakers said.

“It’s one thing to authorize. It’s another thing to actually appropriate the money and do it,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). The fine-print distinction between what Congress says it will do and what it actually pays for is a time-honored result of the checks and balances between lawmakers who oversee agencies and those who hold their purse strings.

In this case, it also reflects political calculations by GOP strategists that voters do not mind the details, and that key players—including the administration, local leaders and the Mexican government—oppose a fence-only approach, analysts said.

President Bush signed the $34.8 billion homeland security budget bill Wednesday in Scottsdale, Ariz., without referring to the 700-mile barrier. Instead, he highlighted the $1.2 billion that Congress provided for an unspecified blend of fencing, vehicle barriers, lighting and technology such as ground-based radar, cameras and sensors.

“That’s what the people of this country want,” the president said. “They want to know that we’re modernizing the border so we can better secure the border.”

Bush and Chertoff have said repeatedly that enforcement alone will not work and that they want limited dollars spent elsewhere, such as on a temporary-worker program to ease pressure on the border. At an estimated $3 million to $10 million per mile, the double-layered barrier will cost considerably more than $1.2 billion.

Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who chairs the Senate subcommittee that funds the Department of Homeland Security, said that before the legislation was approved, the department had planned to build 320 miles of fencing, secure 500 miles of hard-to-traverse areas by blocking roads and monitor electronically the rest of the 2,000-mile-long southern frontier.

“I think there’ll be fencing where the department feels that it makes sense,” Gregg said, estimating that “at least 300 to 400 miles” will be built.

Congress withheld $950 million of the $1.2 billion, pending a breakdown by Chertoff of how he plans to spend the money. It is due in early December, after the midterm elections.

Asked whether Homeland Security would build 700 miles of fence, department spokesman Russ Knocke would not say. Instead, he noted that department leaders announced last month that they will spend $67 million to test a remote-sensing “virtual fence” concept on a 28-mile, high-traffic stretch of border south of Tucson over eight months, and then adjust their plans.

“We plan to build a little and test a little. . . Stay tuned,” Knocke said. “We’re optimistic that Congress is going to provide the department with flexibility.”

The split between GOP leaders hungry for a sound-bite-friendly accomplishment targeting immigration and others who support a more comprehensive approach also means that the fence bill will be watered down when lawmakers return for a lame-duck session in November, according to congressional aides and lobbyists.

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Paris—Mexico’s foreign secretary said Monday the country may take a dispute over U.S. plans to build a fence on the Mexican border to the United Nations.

Luis Ernesto Derbez told reporters in Paris, his first stop on a European tour, that a legal investigation was under way to determine whether Mexico has a case.

The Mexican government last week sent a diplomatic note to Washington criticizing the plan for 700 miles of new fencing along the border. President-elect Felipe Calderon also denounced the plan, but said it was a bilateral issue that should not be put before the international community.

Derbez said Monday after meeting with French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy that it was a “shame” U.S. immigration policy had been used for what he claimed was a short-term political gain in the lead-up to midterm elections in the U.S. in November.

He said he discussed the issue with Douste-Blazy, and planned to bring it up in meetings with his Spanish and Italian counterparts during visits to Madrid and Rome. He vowed to work on the case until the “very last day” of President Vicente Fox’s term, which ends Dec. 1.

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“What should be constructed is a bridge in relations between the two countries,” Derbez said.

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