House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said a plan to build fencing along parts of the United States-Mexico border is a "terrible idea" that overlooks local communities.

Pelosi made the comments during her trip to the Rio Grande Valley for the sixth annual Hispanic Engineering, Science & Technology Week conference hosted by the University of Texas-Pan American.

"I have been against the fence, I thought it's a bad idea even when it was just a matter of discussion," said Pelosi, D-California. "These are communities where you have a border going through them, they are not communities where you have a fence splitting them."

The Department of Homeland Security this week announced plans to erect about 370 miles of fencing and 200 miles of vehicle barriers along the U.S. border by the end of 2008.

Also during her Thursday trip, Pelosi touted legislation that would make it easier for some illegal immigrants to receive higher education benefits.

The legislation, known as the DREAM Act, would eliminate a federal provision that discourages states from providing illegal immigrants with in-state tuition rates. It would also allow permanent residency for illegal immigrants who entered the country as children and have been admitted to an institution of higher education.

"It just isn't fair," Pelosi said. "Those young people who came to America one way or another ... their opportunities are curtailed because of the situation. And it's not only harmful to them — it's harmful to the country."

Pelosi spoke about her plans to add 100,000 new scientists, mathematicians and engineers to the work force by 2010.

"Some of the best contributions (to science) have come from the very young," Pelosi said. "This is an issue of the highest priority and it's important that we do so involving the children of America."

Pelosi said she supported U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa's efforts to make college more affordable for children from poor and middle-class families.

President Bush this week signed legislation co-sponsored by Hinojosa, D-Mercedes, that increases grants for the poorest college students and cuts the interest rates by half on federal student loans over the next four years.

This week's conference drew more than 5,000 area students for activities designed to inspire them to pursue careers in science, mathematics and technology.

"The purpose of this conference is to generate interest, momentum, excitement among the young people looking into careers in science and technology," said Roland S. Arriola, vice president for community engagement at UTPA. "What we are hoping is that if you increase the base, there is going to be more industry coming into the Valley."