WASHINGTON – President Bush sent Congress a $1.9 billion request Thursday to increase border security as supporters of sweeping immigration legislation reasserted control in Senate debate.
The White House said the money would pay for the "first 1,000 of 6,000 new Border Patrol agents that will be deployed in the next two years," as well as the temporary deployment of up to 6,000 National Guard troops to states along the Mexican border. The request includes funds for new fencing and other barriers as well as two new unmanned surveillance aircraft and five helicopters to curb illegal immigration.
The White House sent the request to Congress as the president traveled to Yuma, Ariz. to dramatize his commitment to border control and the Senate labored over the most sweeping overhaul of immigration law in two decades.
After voting narrowly and largely along party lines Wednesday night to bar guest workers from petitioning on their own for legal status, the Senate reconsidered. On a bipartisan vote of 56-43, the prohibition was diluted to say guest workers may generally seek legal status on their own if the government determines no American workers are available to fill the job.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the proposal that cleared on Wednesday night was designed to protect American workers, and the replacement would "put American workers in the back seat and foreign workers...in the front seat."
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said, "I think there is a higher value in not having the immigrant subject to the control of the employer where there may be coercion and pressure..."
Senate leaders have said they hope for passage of the controversial legislation by next week. It includes measures to tighten control over the borders, create a new guest worker program and offer a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants already in the country. Prospects for final congressional passage this year are highly uncertain, given the strong opposition among Republicans to Bush's proposals concerning citizenship.
Bush's funding request came with a pledge that it would not lead to a short-term increase in the deficit. The White House said it would off-set the spending by "delaying certain less-urgent military procurement efforts" to future spending bills.
The developments came one day after a series of clashes that made the national debate over immigration seem like a family feud, Republican style.
"Regardless of what the president says, what he is proposing is amnesty," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the lawmaker who would lead House negotiators in any attempt to draft a compromise immigration bill later this year.
It is amnesty, "because it allows people who have broken the law to stay in the country," Sensenbrenner said of positions Bush staked out in his speech earlier in the week.
Bush stood his ground. "The Republican Party needs to lead on the issue of immigration," he told an audience of GOP donors, "...America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society and we don't have to choose between the two."
House legislation that passed last year over strenuous Democratic opposition would make all illegal immigrants subject to prosecution as felons.
In a conference call with reporters, Sensenbrenner said Bush had "basically turned his back" on a tough border security bill after requesting that certain provisions be included before House passage last year.
On Wednesday, the Senate followed the House's lead and voted 83-16 to build 370 miles of fence in areas "most often used by smugglers and illegal aliens" as determined by federal officials. The House approved twice as much fencing in its bill.
The Senate also approved 500 miles of vehicle barriers. Supporters said the fencing and barriers could help improve economies in communities where they are located and reduce crime.
But opponents said the barriers would shift illegal immigrant and smuggling traffic to areas of the border without fencing. The underlying Senate bill provides for a "virtual" fence along the border using cameras, sensors and other technology to monitor the border.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., estimated the cost at roughly $3.2 million per mile, more than $900 million for 300 miles. He said the fence would send "a signal that open-border days are over."
But Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said the cost would be much higher, while Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., predicted the fencing would be a "down payment" on a fence stretching the length of the border.
All Republicans and more than half the Senate's Democrats supported the proposal.