San Diego Union Tribune

February 10, 2005

House clashes over proposal to complete border fence

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – Democrats and Republicans squared off on the House floor yesterday over a small stretch of fence that separates the United States from Mexico near Imperial Beach.

Republicans strenuously supported letting the federal government complete the final leg of the 14-mile, triple-layered fence despite concerns that it would cause environmental havoc.

Democrats were equally vociferous in their objection to constructing the westernmost 3˝ miles of the barrier without resolving the environmental issues.

The fence provision, part of a broader bill to tighten immigration controls, would allow the fence to be completed without judicial review.

"The border security fence ... is part of our national security effort that must be completed now," said Rep. Chris Cox, R-Newport Beach, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.

On the other side, Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, whose district includes the area under dispute, was fuming. "It's going to do irreparable damage for minimal security benefit, for maximum dollars," he said.

The House is expected to pass the bill today. It would override a decision by the California Coastal Commission last February to deny the project because of erosion concerns. The measure would then go to the Senate, where it is expected to meet stiff resistance.

Until now, the focus of the bill has been two other controversial provisions. One would prohibit federal authorities from accepting a driver license as identification – for boarding an airplane, for example – unless the state had verified that the license holder was in the United States legally. The other would make it easier to deport terrorism suspects and turn away some asylum-seekers at the border.

The White House sent a message to Capitol Hill yesterday proclaiming that President Bush "strongly supports" the bill, even though some analysts say its provisions could complicate his plan to revamp immigration laws, which would, among other things, create a guest-worker program. But the White House indicated it wanted some changes in the license and asylum portions of the bill.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said his measure "seeks to prevent another 9/11-type terrorist attack by disrupting terrorist travel." He noted the ease with which the terrorists moved around the country with driver licenses issued in the United States.

House leaders brought the legislation to the floor unusually quickly as part of a deal struck last fall with Sensenbrenner. He agreed to drop the controversial immigration provisions from a bill to overhaul the intelligence agencies in exchange for an early separate vote on them this year.

A surprising amount of the debate yesterday focused on the fence.

A 10-foot-tall primary fence made of welded steel was completed in 1993 along a 14-mile section of the border from the Pacific Ocean to the Otay border crossing.

Construction of a 14-foot-tall secondary fence about 130 feet north of the existing barrier has been completed except for a section along the last few miles near the beach. A chain-link fence, running along a road, mirrors that secondary fence. Completion of those fences is at issue.

Cox said that terrorists, because of tighter rules on travel visas, "will be forced to resort to crossing our borders illegally." He praised the provision in the bill that shielded the construction from court review.

But many Democrats, including Rep. Sam Farr of Carmel, were furious.

"The state of California hasn't asked for this waiver," Farr said. "The city and county of San Diego haven't asked for this waiver."

Farr warned that the bill would set a dangerous precedent that could threaten environmental laws nationwide.

"Got a problem? Get a waiver," he said.

The area includes not only Smuggler's Gulch – notorious in years past as a crossing point for illegal immigrants and contraband – but also environmentally sensitive wetlands and an American Indian archaeological site.

Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Lakewood, and other Democrats said Sensenbrenner had a hidden aim: to put the squeeze on illegal immigrants.

"I am angered and outraged that under the guise of national security, the Republican Party is trying to punish those seeking the same dream that my parents sought," Sanchez said. She described herself as "the proud daughter of immigrants."

"It's a sad day when Republicans use the pretext of national security to attack immigrants who pose no real threat to our national security," she said.

Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Escondido, rejected the "anti-immigrant" label.

"We support legal immigration, but we also need to take care of security," he said. "If you are here illegally, it's wrong."

The executive director of the National Governors Association and the president of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators also oppose the bill. They say it would impose high costs on the states and that their organizations are already working on improving the security of driver licenses.

Also yesterday, Rep. Duncan Hunter released a letter he had received from Navy Secretary Gordon R. England endorsing completion of the fence. Hunter, R-El Cajon, is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and a proponent of the fence.

"This is of particular interest to the Department of the Navy given the close proximity to the border of several Navy installations," England said in the letter. "The porous nature of the border area poses an unnecessary security risk to these installations."

In San Diego, environmental, religious and immigrant rights leaders gathered at a news conference to oppose the Sensenbrenner bill, specifically the fence provision.

They said the project – which would require filling in Smuggler's Gulch canyon – would not only damage an environmentally sensitive area but create health risks and other hazards for people who live on the Mexican side of the fence, potentially plugging existing pipes and culverts and kicking up dust.

"This triple-border fence will impact flooding," said Laura Hunter of the Environmental Health Coalition. "The rain will still come, and it will flood people's homes out. There will also be air quality impacts. Construction is a dirty business."

Staff writer Leslie Berestein contributed to this report.

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