The House of Representatives has approved by a vote of 283 138 a bill proposing construction of a 1,100 kilometer barrier along with U.S. southern border with Mexico. Debate was infused with election year politics, as Republicans portrayed the legislation as vital in strengthening homeland security, while Democrats called it a political measure to divert attention from stalled immigration reform efforts.
With a little more than two weeks before Congress adjourns to prepare for legislative elections, Republicans are using last-minute legislation in an effort to boost the chances of their candidates.
So politics formed the backdrop for the Secure Fence Act, which is composed mostly of provisions drawn from a border security bill the House had already approved last December.
That previous legislation caused a rift with the Republican-controlled Senate where lawmakers approved a more comprehensive immigration bill favored by President Bush who wants a guest worker program providing a path to citizenship.
The bill approved by the House proposes a double-layer fence in five separate areas of the U.S.-Mexico border, including virtually all of the Arizona boundary with Mexico.
Republicans Roy Blunt and Jeb Hensarling drew connections with efforts to protect Americans from terrorists crossing today's porous borders:
"BLUNT: Today we continue our efforts to undertake emergency measures to ensure that the operational control of the border will continue to improve.
HENSARLING: Iraqis have been caught trying to infiltrate our southern border. Iranians have been detained trying to cross our southern border. Jordanians and people from countries where al-Qaida recruits."
In mandating that the government achieve operational control, the Republican-crafted bill calls for maximum use of high-technology such as un-manned aircraft, cameras and electronic ground sensors.
Democrats such as Congressmen Rueben Hinojosa and Lloyd Doggett asserted the legislation is more about politics, and ignores the need for broad immigration reform:
"DOGGETT: This is not so much about broken immigration policies, as it is about a House leadership that is desperately trying to cling to power.
HINOJOSA: Fix immigration systems and you are assured better border security. The answer to this issue is comprehensive immigration reform."
Republicans say public hearings they held across the U.S. over the summer recess demonstrated that Americans want an extended physical barrier along the border with Mexico.
"The realities are that comprehensive [immigration] legislation is not going to be moving [approved], but again the American people are crying out, they are demanding that we take action," said Peter King, the Republican chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.
But the final vote also highlighted Republican divisions.
Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican, explains his opposition to the barrier, while fellow Republican and Arizonian J.D. Hayworth urged support:
"KOLBE: The time has come to reject these kind of partial measures, more of the same that we have been doing, and get at the root of the problem. And the root of the problem as we well know is the job magnet in this country that pulls migrants in.
HAYWORTH: [These are] reasonable and necessary lines of demarcation between nation states, to ensure the sovereignty and security of those nation states in the post-9/11 world."
Democrats assert the legislation does nothing to address the situation on the northern border with Canada. And the bill mandates only a study of vulnerabilities there.
Republican Marsha Blackburn said Republicans understand that a border fence alone will not solve the problem.
"We know this is not the be all and end all, that it is one part of this important process. We get it, we hear the American people," she said.
House Republican leaders intend to move a package of related bills before the end of the month.
However, to become law the Senate would also have to act to get any of the measures to President Bush's desk for signature.
So it is no surprise that all of this was a subject of discussions between House and Senate Republicans and President Bush, who came to Capitol Hill on Thursday.
Also, a House committee approved a measure that would require anyone registering to vote in U.S. federal elections to show a photo identification by 2008, and provide proof of U.S. citizenship by 2010. Democrats oppose this, saying it will make it harder for many people to vote in elections.