Saturday, December 31, 2005

Border fence divides lawmakers

by Todd J. Gillman:

Saturday, December 31, 2005

WASHINGTON – Good fences make good neighbors. But do they make for good policy along the Mexican border?

Just before going home on recess, the House approved 700 miles of fencing despite objections from every Texas lawmaker whose district touches the border.

Advocates say the fence will keep out drug smugglers, terrorists and illegal immigrants. Critics say it's a waste of money that will simply push the problems to weak points along the 2,000-mile southern border. And Mexican officials are irate.

The debate moves to the Senate, where Texas' senators, both Republicans, are split.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison is open to the idea.

"We already have fences in high-volume areas. I think that should be one of the tools. I don't think you need a 2,000-mile fence," she said, "but I think fences in the high-volume areas, where you have drug trafficking and crime and illegal aliens coming across that are not even from Mexico, that's part of securing our country and having integrity at our borders."

Sen. John Cornyn sees even the 700-mile fence as impractical and a waste of money.

"I would call the idea of a fence or a wall at the border a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem. ... Can't people just go around it?" he said.

Both senators want more border guards. Mr. Cornyn says an extra 10,000 guards, along with electronic surveillance and barriers erected at strategic spots, would create a far more cost-effective "virtual fence." He also wants a guest worker program to ease pressure on enforcement.

Fences now cover 80 miles of the southern border.

Border Barrier
Under the proposal, new fence segments would be along the border at:

Tecate, Calif. (22 miles, approximately 10 miles east and west of the current port of entry

Calexico, Calif., to Douglas, Ariz. (361 miles)

Columbus, N.M., to El Paso (88 miles)

Del Rio, Texas, to Eagle Pass (51 miles)

Laredo to Brownsville (176 miles)

The House plan would add 361 miles in the desert from Calexico, Calif., to Douglas, Ariz., where 400 immigrants die of dehydration in an average year. Laredo would be flanked by 15 miles of fencing, and there would be a 176-mile barrier from there to Brownsville. Del Rio, Texas, to Eagle Pass would be blocked, as would 88 miles west from El Paso.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who proposed the fence, said it would cut down human trafficking and drug crime, especially around Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, where drug lords have murdered police with impunity.

"If we can dry up that massive land smuggling with backpacks full of cocaine coming across that smugglers' jump-off point ... we will have done great things for the people of America and the good citizens of Nuevo Laredo," he said.

He called the $2.2 billion price tag a bargain compared with the cost of enforcement and prison space.

The House voted 260 to 159 to authorize the fence, as an amendment to a broader immigration bill. All but four Texas Republicans – Reps. Kay Granger of Fort Worth, Henry Bonilla of San Antonio, Michael Conaway of Midland and Ron Paul of Surfside – voted for it, along with one Democrat, Rep. Chet Edwards of Waco.

All five supported the final bill.

Mr. Conaway argued that electronic sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles and selective fencing would be more cost-effective, and complained that forcing a fence on border-area landowners would be an "egregious" affront to their rights.

Ms. Granger said local residents and sheriffs hadn't been asked for their input, and the proposal wasn't adequately planned.

The idea of a fence has kicked around for years. Conservative pundit and immigration-control advocate Pat Buchanan made it a cornerstone of his 1996 presidential campaign. At the time, cost estimates for fencing the entire southern border ran from $167 million for chain-link to $45 billion for a 25-foot-high structure akin to the Great Wall.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, likened the idea to the Berlin Wall, as did Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi.

"The answer's not a wall or kicking everybody out or shutting down commerce," said Ortiz spokeswoman Cathy Travis, "it's about funding [border enforcement] and being honest about why people come here."

Todd J. Gillman covers Congress and the Texas delegation.


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