WASHINGTON – Heeding conservative demands to shore up the southern U.S. border to prevent illegal immigrants from freely crossing into the country, the Senate voted Wednesday to build 370 miles of triple-layered fence
Senators voted 83-16 to add fencing and 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the southern border.
Construction of the barrier would send "a signal that open-border days are over. ... Good fences make good neighbors, fences don't make bad neighbors," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. He said border areas where barriers already exist have experienced economic improvement and reduced crime.
"What we have here has become a symbol for the right wing in American politics," countered Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. If made law, "our relationship with Mexico would come down to a barrier between our two countries."
The vote was among several amendments that senators are considering to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Other provisions caused more heated debate.
The Senate endorsed a chance at citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants Wednesday by turning down an amendment that would have removed provisions allowing illegals in the country for more than two years to try for eventual citizenship. That amendment by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., was knocked down on a 66-33 vote.
Vitter said the plans to create a guest worker program and allow a chance at citizenship amounts to amnesty.
"Surely this is a pardon from what present law says must happen," Vitter said of the measures.
But Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska decried that description.
"Let's stop the nonsense," said Hagel, addressing fellow Republicans. "You all know it's not amnesty."
McCain, addressing Vitter, said: "Call it a banana if you want to. ... To call the process that we require under this legislation amnesty frankly distorts the debate and it's an unfair interpretation of it."
Earlier in the day, the Senate unanimously approved an amendment that says legal or illegal immigrants who are convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors unrelated to their residency status will be deported immediately.
Those convicted will be permanently barred from the guest worker program or any chance of getting on a path to U.S. citizenship.
A senior aide to Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told FOX News that he and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., solidified an agreement over the provision late Tuesday with Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., John McCain, R-Ariz., who authored the base bill that is being negotiated, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
The amendment brokered by the group would allow legal and illegal immigrants who have been ordered to be deported strictly because of immigration-related violations, like staying on an expired visa, an extra chance to prove they should be allowed to stay in the United States. Conditions that would allow the immigrants to stay would include extreme hardship to their family, or some circumstance like not receiving proper court notice.
Aides to Kyl and Cornyn told FOX News that this is a high threshold that immigrants would likely not be able to meet.
Kyl told reporters in a press conferenace after the vote that the amendment will prevent up to 500,000 immigrants from gaining citizenship.
He said that group includes "people who have demonstrated an unwillingness to comply with the law when they've been ordered to leave the country and have not done so," and others convicted of serious crimes. He said the measure will prevent convicted felons from becoming citizens.
"I hope that this establishes some rhythm and momentum for the bill that will allow us to be successful," Cornyn said. The two lawmakers noted that they believe much more needs to be done on the bill before it is satisfactory.
The latest vote comes one day after the Senate began making significant changes to its Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act that puts the Senate on course to kick a finished bill out of that side of the Capitol by the end of next week.
The language in the Senate amendment is different from that of the House version of the bill passed in December. The House measure would label most illegal immigrants as felons and subject them to stiffer penalties. The Republican-sponsored House bill has been criticized by Democrats because of the felony provisions, but Republicans have countered saying that Democrats were merely posturing by killing a Republican amendment that would have lightened the provision.
The Senate's work this week follows President Bush's Oval Office speech Monday in which he outlined a plan to put up to 6,000 National Guard members along the U.S.-Mexico border to assist U.S. Border Patrol agents with security.
Speaking to the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld insisted that the deployment of National Guard troops to the southern U.S. border will not adversely affect the Guard and will actually provide "useful real-life" training for members during their two or three week active duty stints.
"The Department of Homeland Security is in the lead role, but Guard units may provide assistance such as mobile communications, transportation, logistics training and construction. Military forces will not be involved in apprehension or detention of illegal immigrants," Rumsfeld said.
Guard deployment to increase border security will be a decision for governors to make. In the meantime, the Senate continues to tackle provisions related to the treatment of illegal immigrants already inside the country.
Bush called on Congress to pass a temporary guest worker program that would allow a portion of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States to stay and work legally, and allow those who meet certain qualifications a path to citizenship. He also said he opposes so-called amnesty, which he defined as granting illegal immigrants an automatic path to citizenship without penalties.
White House spokesman Tony Snow, speaking to reporters during his afternoon briefing, defended the president's stance but declined to speak about specific amendments.
"What we're happy about is the fact that the Senate seems to be moving with considerable dispatch toward putting together a comprehensive approach to this," Snow said. "Rather than commenting piecemeal, I think when the whole package is put together, obviously we'll have a strategy for talking with the House and Senate about our longer term objectives."
Snow rejected claims by conservative Republicans who say a guest worker program amounts to amnesty. He said that immigrants, after meeting a number of requirements, would be put under an 11-year probationary time period.
"In that probationary period, you have to keep a job, you have to keep your nose clean, you have to learn English, you have to go through the bureaucracy, you have to pay the fees. ... So you put all that together, it's not amnesty. The people who will go through that process are going to have to go through some of the most expensive and the longest tracks toward citizenship anyone's ever faced," Snow said.
Bush sent his political adviser, Karl Rove, to meet with top House Republicans in hopes of swaying them in favor of a guest worker program. Rove said afterward that the meeting was as open and optimistic as he could have hoped, but more than one Republican indicated Rove's efforts were for naught.
"It's not the kind of issue you can compromise on. Either you're giving amnesty to people who are here illegally, or you aren't," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
"If it was about Karl Rove seeking to convince members of Congress after debate that he's right and we're wrong, it would have been better not to have the meeting," Rep. Steve King.
The Iowa congressman said Rove told lawmakers Bush is sincere about enforcement, but he had another take.
"The president doesn't want to enforce immigration law because he's afraid he'll inconvenience someone who wants to come into the country for a better life," Iowa's King said.
Limits Placed on Guest Workers
Late-day movements Tuesday curtailed the president's coveted plan from 325,000 worker permits per year down to 200,000 with no increases over time. That proposal, by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.D., followed another Democratic attempt to strip the guest worker program altogether.
"The so-called guest provision here are people who will come here and then they will apply for a green card and then they will stay here. There's nothing temporary about that. They're not guests, don't call them guests," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who led the charge to kill the guest worker program.
"Those of us who are working to try to pull people together toward the middle and a comprehensive immigration reform package will succeed," said Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., a supporter of the guest worker program.
On Tuesday, the Senate balked at a Republican-offered amendment that would have required Cabinet-level certification to the president and Congress that the borders were secure before a guest worker program could get underway.
That amendment, offered by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., received tepid support from Republicans and was defeated by a vote of 55-40. A competing Democratic amendment designed to secure the guest worker program by putting it in the hands of the president passed widely.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., also won approval for his proposal to add 1,000 more Border Patrol agents this year, 100 helicopters and 250 power boats.
Other attempts to further reign in the guest worker program were expected to be offered Wednesday by Democrats. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was to push for a change that would cut off access to the program by new immigrants once unemployment reaches 9 percent as well as provide a prevailing or working wage for workers.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was expected to offer an amendment that would set a sunset date for the guest worker program.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., planned to offer an amendment that would erect more fencing along the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border, an idea similar to one passed in December by the House.
But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Wednesday that lawmakers increasingly realize the need for a comprehensive plan that goes beyond trying to stop people at the border.
"If you just try to build a wall 30 feet high and 2,000 miles long, it will be insufficient. People will go up over it, around it, in order to get a job in this country," Frist said on CBS' "The Early Show."
As for those who oppose creating a temporary worker program, Frist said: "We've got one today, the problem is it's illegal, with hundreds of thousands of people working in this country illegally. So we need to get our hands around it."
Still, House Republicans remain unyielding in their opposition to legalization.
"Thinly veiled attempts to promote amnesty cannot be tolerated," said Rep. Tom Price of Georgia. "While America is a nation of immigrants, we are also a nation of laws, and rewarding those who break our laws not only dishonors the hard work of those who came here legally but does nothing to fix our current situation."
"The Senate has to move a bill. ... That's where the negotiation will occur," House Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio said Wednesday.
FOX News' Trish Turner and Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.