House GOP Makes Border Security Its Priority

House GOP Makes Border Security Its Priority
Plans for a hearing next week indicate that work on a larger immigration overhaul will have to wait until after midterm elections in November.

By Nicole Gaouette, Times Staff Writer
September 8, 2006

WASHINGTON House Republican leaders announced Thursday that rather than negotiate the type of sweeping overhaul of immigration law that President Bush had called for, they instead would hold an unusual hearing next week to help fashion a tightly focused “border security package.”

The decision effectively ends any chance that Congress will pass legislation addressing the status of millions of illegal immigrants before November's midterm congressional elections.

It also adds another act to the House's summerlong series of immigration “field hearings” around the country, which critics said were meant less to solicit public input than to promote the get-tough approach to immigration favored by conservative lawmakers.

At next week's session, various House Republicans will testify to their leaders about lessons learned in those hearings and measures that could be included in the border security effort.

“We will quickly do border security legislation before we leave” for Congress' preelection recess, said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “Congress can't wait to act on this issue. The border is a sieve. We're at war, and we certainly need to act like we are at war and close our borders.”

The announcement came as a few thousand immigrants and their supporters demonstrated on the National Mall to demand legalization for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

House Republicans have announced that they will concentrate on national security for the rest of this session, before an election in which many Republican seats are at risk.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said the border security initiative would provide more border patrol agents, add fencing and surveillance along the southern border, and toughen the enforcement of immigration laws inside the country.

Republican aides said enhanced enforcement efforts could include giving state and local officials greater authority to enforce immigration laws. Hastert said measures could include tamper-proof Social Security cards.

“The House leadership is committed to sending legislation to the president's desk before Oct. 1,” Blunt said.

House and Senate leaders met with Bush on Wednesday to discuss the fall agenda, and Blunt said the administration would issue its own series of proposals related to border security in the next few days.

In December, the House passed a bill focused on enforcement of immigration laws and border security, but there has been no progress since the Senate passed its bill in late May. The Senate legislation includes steps to improve enforcement, a guest worker program and a way for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship elements that Bush has called for but which the House has adamantly rejected.

On Thursday, Hastert said that discussions were continuing with the Senate but that House leaders had no intention of considering measures beyond security.

“Before you have a guest worker program or any other program, you have to heal the wound,” he said, referring to the border with Mexico. “There are nuggets of things we can do. It won't be the whole 95 tons of what we'd been trying to work out between the House and Senate, but we can get some things done.”

Supporters of the Senate bill criticized the House announcement.

“Security alone cannot fix the problem of illegal immigration,” said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who backs the Senate bill. “If we do enforcement without anything else, crops in the field will be rotting, nothing will be picked and the problems will ripple throughout the entire economy.”

At the immigration rally, less than a mile from the Capitol, speakers promised the crowd of immigrants and activists that the fight for a broad overhaul was far from lost.

Gina Jean, a 20-year-old Haitian American from Brooklyn, clutched a Haitian flag and a sign urging bilingual education and English classes for recent immigrants.

“I see suffering people are trying to gain their rights, but people don't want to hear what we have to say,” she said.

Separately, the Senate on Thursday passed a $470-billion defense spending bill for fiscal 2007 that includes $1.8 billion for the National Guard to install 370 miles of fencing and 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the southern border.

The Senate bill will have to be reconciled with the $428-billion defense spending bill the House passed in June.


Times staff writer Moises Mendoza contributed to this report.