WASHINGTON – Rep. Dennis Hastert, the top lawmaker in the House of Representatives, said Thursday as he prepared for a two-state tour of the Mexican border that immigration legislation must first "solve the problem" of illegal entry into the United States.
"I've always said you need to build a fence on the border, and you need to have military," said Hastert, the House speaker. "There are places the military can help, especially the National Guard."
Hastert and a handful of lawmakers intend to make stops this weekend in Arizona and Texas to meet with National Guard troops deployed to help Border Patrol agents. They also will visit Camp Grip, which aides described as a remote, desert location and prime area for smugglers. The group also plans a night tour along the border at Nogales, Arizona, and a stop at the Bridge of Americas Port of Entry in El Paso, Texas.
"I just want to see how it's working," Hastert said, speaking of the border security effort that has been augmented in recent months as immigration worries have taken on increased prominence.
Hastert's trip comes at a time when House Republicans are working to highlight shortcomings in Senate-passed immigration legislation that largely follows a blueprint favored by President George W. Bush.
The Senate's bill, which passed on a bipartisan vote, would require tougher border enforcement; penalties against employers who hire illegal immigrants; a new guest worker program; and a shot at citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million immigrants in the country illegally.
Many House Republicans have denounced the legislation as an amnesty bill, although Bush disputes that. Prospects for a compromise along the lines proposed by the president appear remote.
The Republican-controlled House passed its own bill a year ago largely along party lines. Its focus is increased security at the borders.
In an interview, Hastert said he is ready to appoint negotiators to discuss a compromise with the Senate, but he added he is determined to focus first on cracking down on illegal immigration.
"Before you get a bigger picture you've got to solve the problem, and the problem is the border," he said.