WASHINGTON – The House voted for the second time in a year to erect a fence along a third of the U.S.-Mexican border, part of a Republican effort to keep illegal immigration an issue before voters.
A new 700 miles of double-layered fencing won approval on a 283-138 vote, a bigger margin than last December when the House passed it as part of a broader bill that also would have made being an illegal immigrant a felony. The nearly 2,000-mile border now has about 75 miles of fencing.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., said the separate fence bill was needed to show Americans "we can take meaningful action to secure the border."
The House's bill last December and one passed by the Senate last May are so far apart on issues that Republican leaders haven't even tried to negotiate a compromise.
The main difference is that the Senate bill would provide legal status to millions of illegal immigrants already in the U.S., a concept supported by President Bush but opposed by most House Republicans. The Senate bill calls for 370 miles of fencing along the Mexican border.
Supporters of the new House bill said the new fencing would let Border Patrol agents focus more on apprehending illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico rather than having to man the entire border.
"We have to come to grips with the fact that our Border Patrol agents need a border fence on our southern border ... where we're now facing infiltration by members of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah," said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif.
The bill passed Thursday doesn't pay for the fence. Republicans, estimating the cost at more than $2 billion, said that will be covered in a later spending bill. Democrats estimated the fence would cost $7 billion, based on information from the Department of Homeland Security on costs per mile of a double-layer fence.
"This is nothing more than political gamesmanship in the run-up to the midterm elections. Sounds good. Does nothing," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.
Democrats accused Republicans of playing upon voters' fears to score political points. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said Republicans were trying to confuse Americans into thinking "Osama Bin Laden is heading north in a sombrero."
The bill also directs the Homeland Security Department to take control of the border in 18 months and gives border agents new authority to stop fleeing vehicles. And it calls for a study of the need for a fence on the U.S.-Canadian border.
Meanwhile, the House Administration Committee approved a bill to make states to ask for photo identification from voters by November 2008 and proof of citizenship by 2010. The full House could vote on it as early as next week.