WASHINGTON – The House continued to struggle Friday over how best to shut down illegal immigration, approving the construction of a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border but putting off debate on an explosive proposal to deny citizenship to babies born in this country to illegal immigrants.
The legislation on strengthening border controls and cracking down on the hiring of illegal immigrants headed for a vote Friday after the House Rules Committee, which determines allowable amendments, rejected the birthright amendment.
Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., had proposed that, within the bounds of the 14th Amendment, birthright citizenship be granted only to children of U.S. citizens and permanent legal aliens.
Deal said he would continue pushing the issue. "It is a major magnet that is a huge component of the illegal immigration problem," he said, citing figures that as many as 10 percent of births in the United States are to illegal immigrants. That translates to up to 400,000 a year, he said, enough for an entire new congressional district. "That's a staggering thought."
Late Thursday, the House passed a measure, 260-159, calling for construction of a border fence in parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The measure is an amendment to a larger immigration enforcement bill backed by the White House.
The bill was nearly derailed Thursday when several Republicans said they opposed it because it did not include a guest worker program. President Bush urged Congress almost two years ago to enact a guest worker program that could allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country temporarily to fill jobs unwanted by Americans. He repeated that message during a recent visit to the Mexican border.
Under his plan, undocumented immigrants would be allowed to get three-year work visas. They could extend those for an additional three years, but would then have to return to their home countries for a year to apply for a new work permit.
Others in the House were unhappy because the immigration bill lacked tougher provisions, including one denying citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants in the United States.
That measure and several other amendments could be offered Friday.
"Those people who are against this bill don't want any changes in the existing system except perhaps amnesty, or, excuse me, 'earned legalization,' or perhaps citizenship for those who have broken the law," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a chief sponsor and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., said negotiations had been ongoing throughout the day Thursday after Republicans met behind closed doors to close ranks on the immigration bill. He said the meeting helped build momentum to pass the border fence measure.
"What would be the best Christmas present to the American people is pictures of concrete being poured" for the fence, Tancredo said. "This is a good thing."
The fencing would total 700 miles and priority for construction would be near Laredo, Texas. The city is across the border from Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, where warring drug cartels have been blamed for more than 140 murders this year.
Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, who is from Laredo, voted against the measure. "I'm strong on security, but this overdoes it," he said.
Also Thursday, House members approved on a voice vote an amendment requiring Border Patrol uniforms to be made in the United States. Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., said they are now made in Mexico, possibly posing security problems.
Supporters of the overall immigration enforcement bill defended their decision to cut off the flow of illegal entrants before turning to the tougher issues of a guest worker program.
"Secure borders are now a matter of national security," said Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga.
Almost all Democrats, and several border-state Republicans such as Arizona Reps. Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe, pushed for a more comprehensive measure that would deal with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States.
The GOP bill "does nothing to solve the real problems of illegal immigration," Kolbe said. "In fact, it's worse than nothing."
The White House said in a statement that it strongly supported the House bill, adding that it "remains committed to comprehensive immigration reform, including a temporary worker program that avoids amnesty."
Among its provisions, the bill would:
—Require the Homeland Security Department to employ the personnel and technology needed to secure the border.
—End the "catch-and-release" policy for non-Mexican immigrants.
—Require the Defense and Homeland Security departments to design a plan to use military technology to stop illegal crossings.
—Require all employers in the country, more than 7 million, to check the legal status of workers.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has said the guest worker issue will be on the table when the Senate takes up immigration overhaul in February. The main dispute is over whether the estimated 6 million illegal workers should have to leave the country before applying for a temporary worker program.