Vote nears on 700-mile border fence

The Senate this week takes up a bill that would erect a security fence along one-third of the US-Mexico border.

Azul-Cristian Caravaggio made it to Washington from her home in Chattanooga, Tenn., about sundown on Friday – too late to see any senators. But by Monday, when the Senate returns, she says that she and other protesters will be on a hunger strike and chained to a half-ton, 28-foot wall they set up in a Senate park.

This will be the last week of votes on Capitol Hill before November elections, and one will be whether to build a 700-mile fence along the 1,920-mile US border with Mexico. She wants senators to vote no.

"Whatever is done, people will find a way to knock it down, go under or around it. There will be thousands more deaths on the border," she says.

It's a prelude to the final moves on immigration in the 109th Congress. Since last spring, the House and Senate have gridlocked over competing versions of immigration reform: The Senate and the Bush White House, backed by many business groups and service-industry unions, favor an approach that includes more guest workers and a path to citizenship for at least 11 million now in the country illegally. The House, claiming the support of an angry public, aims to secure borders first.

For now, the House approach is winning. But both sides hope to move elements of their agenda in some form this week – either as stand-alone bills, or attached to other legislation.

Facing a standoff with the Senate – and a restive base – House Republicans repackaged popular border-security provisions into a new bill, the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which the Senate takes up again Monday.

The bill authorizes construction of almost 700 miles of double-layered fencing along the Southern border. It also directs the Department of Homeland Security to achieve operational control over all international land and maritime borders within 18 months of enactment, including surveillance using unmanned aerial vehicles. The bill passed the House on Sept. 14 with the support of 64 Democrats, and all but six Republicans.

The White House says that border security is a crucial part of the president's plan, but that "in no way does the passage of [a] border-security-only bill take the place of what he has called for, which is a comprehensive immigration reform bill." The president has not threatened to veto the bill.

In separate votes last week, the House also opted to encourage state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws, including checking papers at the workplace. In a near party-line vote, the House also required all voters in federal elections to have photo identification, beginning in 2008.

"The border-security crisis in America is one that we will continue to address. It's a matter of homeland, national, and economic security for all Americans," said Speaker Dennis Hastert on Thursday.

Polls show that some 2 in 3 Americans favor the House approach, even though immigration ranks well behind war and the economy as concerns in the midterm elections. Primary election results in states like Arizona and Nebraska signaled that voters will punish candidates seen as too lenient on illegal immigrants.

But business groups and others favoring a more comprehensive approach say they're not giving up on the 109th Congress – and that more negotiations are likely after midterm elections.

"We're disappointed that the Senate isn't taking up comprehensive reform, but even with the passage of the fence bill, there are plenty of issues outstanding to bring people to the table in the lame duck or next year," says Randel Johnson, vice president for labor, immigration, and employee benefits at the US Chamber of Commerce.

Business groups are especially worried that the new focus on enforcement will deprive many sectors of essential workers. "We are very nervous that any type of new enforcement in the US would hinder the ability of employers to find anybody to do the work out in the fields," says John Farner, director of legislative relations of the American Nursery and Landscape Association.

In upstate New York, Maureen Torrey says that worries about greater immigration enforcement have cut her mainly immigrant workforce in half this year, threatening crops that are ready to pick. "I've got food rotting in the field ... cucumbers, yellow squash, zucchini squash, pumpkins," she says in a phone interview. While she is paying $16 to $17 an hour, she says that she is still short 100 workers and has to make triage decisions daily about what will be the most profitable crop to pick.

In the Senate, Sens. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho and Dianne Feinstein (D) of California want to amend the fence bill to allow faster certification for migrant farmworkers. Meanwhile, business groups are urging the Senate to not take up the House bill that would permit local police to enforce national immigration laws.

Last week, the Homeland Security Department announced a $67 million federal contract for Boeing Co. to install a "virtual fence" along the Southern border in Arizona. It's the first phase of a federal contract that industry analysts expect will exceed $2 billion and will eventually include the Northern border with Canada.

"We're disappointed that the 700-mile fence has become the centerpiece of reform, because fences don't stop people," says T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents border-patrol agents. "As long as the employment magnet is turned on full force, people will continue to come across our borders in 125 degree heat."

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