Border issue vexes Congress

Facing a tight budget, lawmakers are struggling to pass even popular issues like a border fence.

Four months after the collapse of a wide-ranging immigration reform, lawmakers are making decisions on what elements of the derailed bill, if any, can be salvaged in this session of Congress.

So far, the answer is not much.

However, with public opinion running about 2-to-1 in favor of greater border security, lawmakers are scrambling to have a record on the issue to take home to voters.

Last month, the Senate gave up on the DREAM Act, after falling short of the votes needed to take up debate. The plan, which would have given children of illegal immigrants access to US colleges and universities and, eventually, to citizenship, was once viewed as one of the more likely immigration measures to pass Congress.

This week, another program with broad bipartisan support fell off the legislative agenda, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California said she was postponing plans to legalize the status of hundreds of thousands of migrant agricultural workers. She had urged her colleagues to add the guest-worker provisions in her AgJobs bill to the $283 billion farm bill now before the Senate. But she said in a statement Monday that the politics on the issue weren't promising: "When we took a clear-eyed assessment of the politics of the Farm bill and the defeat of the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform, it became clear that our support could not sustain these competing forces."

"The biggest change is in the political climate," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, an advocacy group that opposes illegal immigration. "Before the collapse of the comprehensive amnesty bill, a lot of people thought they would pass piecemeal the DREAM Act and smaller amnesties. Now they can't even get their consolation prizes through Congress."

But pro-immigrant groups say that this week's elections, which did not produce that anti-immigrant backlash many groups predicted, send a different message.

"Immigration is clearly not the winning wedge issue that some candidates and political operatives would like for it to be," said Peter Zamora, Washington, D.C., regional counsel for MALDEF, the leading Latino legal-rights advocacy group, in a statement.

Such competing assessments of the politics of the issue are making the end-of-year spending fights even more polarized.

With time running out, the best prospect for any immigration measure is to be added to one of the must-pass spending bills for fiscal year 2008. But even measures with broad-based support, such as strengthening borders, are becoming grist for partisan firefights.

Last week, Democrats dropped a $3 billion plan for emergency spending for border security from the FY 2008 Defense Appropriations Conference Report. The measure, which passed the Senate last week by a vote of 95 to 1, would have paid for the completion of 700 miles of border fence, added 23,000 more border patrol officers, and beefed up surveillance along the US border with Mexico.

"I think it's outrageous for the Congress to miss an opportunity to restore confidence with the public on an issue that matters to every American," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, in a briefing on Wednesday.

But the Democrats' move is tactical. By dropping the $3 billion from the defense bill, which President Bush is expected to sign, they have in effect upped the ante over the Homeland Security spending bill, which Mr. Bush has threatened to veto. This latter bill also includes $3 billion in emergency spending for border security.

By including the popular border measure there, the Democratic leadership is making it that much harder for the president to veto the bill, even though it is currently $4 billion over his budget.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are rushing new versions of immigration reform to their colleagues. On the House side, 46 Republicans and 44 Democrats, mainly moderates and freshmen, are cosponsoring a bill that would require employers to verify the citizenship status of all employees, not just new hires.

Pressure to step up enforcement was fueled this week by the release of a new report by the Government Accountability Office that found that thousands of illegal aliens were crossing into the US without any contact with US officials. The report cites insufficient staff as contributing to morale and safety problems when officers inspect travelers, "increasing the potential that terrorists, inadmissible travelers, and illicit goods could enter the country."

Commenting on the report in a briefing on Tuesday, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said that the department is on track to "getting over 18,000 boots on the ground by the end of calendar year 2008."

He told CNN that by January of next year, there would be no more waving people through ports of entry and a dramatic reduction in the types of identification that are acceptable.

"We have a few more agents out there, but we're as ineffective as ever," counters T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing border patrol employees. "The real key to this is holding employers accountable, and they simply don't have the right laws in place to do that."

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