WASHINGTON – President Bush signed into law Thursday a broad measure that calls for fencing a third of the 2,100-mile border between the United States and Mexico.
"This bill will protect the American people, this will bill make our borders more secure. It is an important step in immigration reform," Bush said from the White House Roosevelt Room before putting pen to paper.
Bush was joined by Vice President Dick Cheney, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, House Majority Leader John Boehner and several other lawmakers and administration officials.Bush said the United States is a nation of immigrants but also a nation of laws.
"Unfortunately, the United States has not been in complete control of its borders for decades, and therefore, illegal immigration has been on the rise. We have a responsibility to address these challenges, we have a responsibility to enforce our laws, we have a responsibility to secure our borders. We take this responsibility seriously," Bush said.
The Secure Fence Act of 2006 gives the secretary of Homeland Security 18 months to get "operational control over U.S. international land and maritime borders" by improving surveillance through personnel and technology as well as "physical infrastructure enhancements to prevent unlawful border entry and facilitate border access by U.S. Customs and Border Protection."
The measure provides for at least two layers of reinforced fencing and the installation of additional barriers through 700 miles of portions of California, Texas andArizona. The legislation also demands the secretary report to appropriate committees in Congress on its progress and "the necessity, feasibility and economic impact" of the construction.
It also gives the Department of Homeland Security the authority to decide where to use the fencing and where to use the department's preferred option of a virtual fence comprised of cameras, vehicles barriers, checkpoints, lighting and motion sensors, which officials say is more economical and just as effective.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the project will cost roughly $2.2 billion, or about $3.2 million per mile.
The measure, sent to Bush on Tuesday by the Congress, is a compromise that gives Republican candidates in border states a winning campaign issue, with polls indicating strong support for tightening the border as an essential first step to getting control of illegal immigration.
The act also represents a step in an ongoing process of political compromise between Republicans and Bush on the issue of how to deal with the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States.
Bush has proposed a guest worker program and path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country.
The president said for legal employment to be a success, more needs to be done to verify documents and work eligibility while cracking down on those who break the law.
"We must face the reality that millions of illegal immigrants are already here. They should not be given an automatic path to citizenship. That is amnesty. I oppose amnesty. There is a rational middle ground between granting a path of automatic citizenship and a program of mass deportation," Bush said.
Bush argues it will be easier to get his guest worker program passed if Republicans keep their majorities in the House and Senate after the Nov. 7 elections.
Democrats, however, for the most part have been more in tune with the president's objectives for a guest worker option, and outgoing Mexican President Vicente Fox has spent much of his six years in office lobbying for a program. He calls the fence "shameful" and compares it to the Berlin Wall.
Customs and Border Protection statistics, however, show that apprehensions at border crossings are down 8 percent nationally for the budget year that just ended, and apprehensions were up in the San Diego sector, which has the most fencing, said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing Border Patrol agents.
Still, Bonner said more agents are needed as much as a physical barrier.
"A fence will slow people down by a minute or two, but if you don't have the agents to stop them it does no good. We're not talking about some impenetrable barrier," he said.
Paying for it is another issue.
While the measure signed Thursday contains financing, a Homeland Security appropriations bill signed by the president earlier this month also contains $1.2 billion for the fencing. Congress, however, withheld most of that funding pending a report from DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff on exactly how the money will be spent.
That report is expected to be politically explosive, so Chertoff isn't issuing it until December, after the election. Chertoff has said he wants to use about $70 million to test a virtual fence on a 28-mile stretch of the border south of Tucson, Ariz., and then adjust the plans depending on how effective it is.
After the signing, Bush was off to campaign for congressional hopeful Jeff Lamberti in Iowa and Senate candidate Mike Bouchard in Michigan.
For complete election coverage, go to FOXNews.com's You Decide 2006 center
FOX News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.