San Antonio Express-News
September 9, 2009
by Gary Martin
WASHINGTON — A group of elected officials from Texas cities and counties along the U.S.-Mexico border urged Congress on Wednesday to strip a provision requiring the building of more border fencing from an annual spending bill.
The Texas Border Coalition wants a House-Senate conference committee to remove language from the spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security that would require the government to replace vehicle barriers and a high-technology “virtual fence” with pedestrian fencing.
Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, the coalition's chairman, said the current fence, at a cost of $3.5 billion, has only forced narcotics traffickers and smugglers of undocumented immigrants to develop counterstrategies to move contraband and people into the United States.
With the recent building of some pedestrian fence, Foster said narco-traffickers and smugglers are now shifting their focus to busy land ports.
“If Congress perceives the purpose of the border fence is to seal the border from illegal activity, then the program is and will continue to be a failure,” Foster said.
The pedestrian fence provision was added as an amendment to the spending bill on a 54-44 vote in the Senate.
Republican Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn of Texas, and Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California voted in favor of the amendment.
New Mexico Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, both Democrats, voted against the measure sponsored by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. Arizona Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, both Republicans, voted for it.
The House did not include the measure in its version of the spending bill, which is now before a House-Senate conference committee to iron out differences in the two pieces of legislation.
DeMint vowed to work to keep the provision in the final bill.
But House Democrats from the four Southwest border states are lobbying leaders to strip the provision from the bill and use the funds to better equip overcrowded and understaffed ports of entry.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, called the DeMint amendment “a waste of taxpayer's money.”
Congress authorized 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border in the Secure Fence Initiative of 2006. Homeland Security has 370 miles of fence under contract, with the remainder to be secured by vehicle barriers, as well as technology and sensors.
Some portions of uncompleted fence remain under court challenge.
The DeMint provision would require that pedestrian fence account for all 700 miles of barriers authorized by Congress in 2006, and be completed by Dec. 31, 2010.
The Texas Border Coalition, made up of mayors, county judges and eco
nomic development officials, argue that the fence funds would be better spent on improvements to border ports to better inspect cargo and facilitate legal trade.