Appropriators deal blow to border fence

Appropriators dropped a requirement in the 2010 Homeland Security spending bill to rush the construction of a fence at the Mexican border, disappointing conservatives who pushed the project as a way to slow illegal immigration.

The conference report for the $42.8 billion appropriations bill left out language in the Senate's version that required the installation of 700 miles of the border fence by the end of next year. The fence requirement was inserted in July as an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). It was adopted with the support of most GOP senators and 21 Democrats.

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But the conference report went with the House's position, which didn't include any requirements on the fence's construction.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, and other GOP members of the panel assented to dropping the DeMint amendment partly because the conference report increased money for Customs and Border Protection, which includes the Border Patrol, a GOP aide said. The conference report calls for $10.1 billion for Customs and Border Protection, which is a 3 percent boost over funding for the agency in the 2009 Homeland Security spending bill.

Fence supporters faced several obstacles to funding the project.

The Obama administration had opposed a rapid expansion of the fence, requesting far less money for the project than President George W. Bush had asked for. The White House called for $779 million for the fence in 2010, less than the $1.9 billion spent by the Bush adminstration in 2008 and the $926 million appropriated to the fence in 2009. The Homeland Security conference report calls for $800 million for the fence.

Initial plans called for the fence to cover 670 miles of the nearly 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexico border. But a General Accountability Office (GAO) report in February found that less than three dozen miles of it had been built.

The project was dealt another blow last month when the GAO found that it would cost $6.5 billion over 20 years. The report also said that it couldn't assess its effectiveness at stopping illegal immigration until its technological features were installed. Boeing, the firm building the fence, plans to install sensors to help Border Patrol agents deter people trying to cross it.

DeMint blamed Democrats for "gutting the best tool" for securing the U.S. border.

"Virtual fencing won't solve the problem and we need a real fence to deter the real problems of illegal immigration, terrorism, drug trafficking and human trafficking," he said. "A strong bipartisan Senate majority voted to finish the fence by the end of 2010 and its very disappointing that Democrat leaders are thwarting the will of the American people behind closed doors."

The Homeland Security conference report weakens another provision pushed by immigration hard-liners. The Senate had called for a permanent extension of the E-Verify program, an electronic system used by employees to check whether workers are in the country legally, but the conference report would extend it by three years, the same proposal in the House bill. The conference report does require federal contractors to use the system to check employees' statuses, which is what the Senate had proposed.

Appropriators did include in the legislation $800 million for the border fence program and a 3-year extension of a visa program for international medical graduates working in rural parts of the country.

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), the sponsor of the House version of the spending bill, said the measures were "short-term solutions until comprehensive immigration reform can be considered by Congress."

President Obama in August called on lawmakers to produce a draft immigration reform bill by the end of the year. But lawmakers, dealing with major bills on healthcare, financial regulation and climate change, will be hard pressed to find time for another contentious legislative item.