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Originally published September 21, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 21, 2006 at 2:16 PM

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Congress focuses on illegal-immigration bills

Congress focused today on putting up barriers to stop people trying to enter the United States illegally.

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Congress focused today on putting up barriers to stop people trying to enter the United States illegally.

The Senate considered a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border and the House was voting on legislation to close down tunnels and make it easier to detain and deport illegal immigrants.

Just a week before leaving for the election campaign, Republicans were determined to show voters they are serious about stopping the flow of illegal immigrants across the nation's border.

Democrats said the border security measures were a cover for the failure of the GOP-led Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Republicans "are trying to convince the voters that we in this Congress are doing something when in fact we are doing nothing," said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass.

"Securing our borders is a major step forward in addressing comprehensive immigration reform," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said as he urged Congress to act to close the borders before moving to broader immigration reform.

The Senate in May gave strong support to legislation that would set up a guest worker program and outline a path by which the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country could work toward legal status and eventual citizenship.

But there's been little progress in reaching a compromise with the House, which last December passed a bill that tightens the border and cracks down on undocumented workers but says nothing about opening a course for citizenship, which many House Republicans consider tantamount to amnesty.

President Bush supports a broader approach including guest worker and citizenship provisions. In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday, Bush said he would sign a fencebuilding bill as part of efforts to strengthen the border. "I would view this as an interim step," he said. "I don't view this as the final product. And I will keep urging people to have a comprehensive reform."

On Wednesday the House passed, on a partisan 228-196 vote, legislation that would eventually require voters to show proof of citizenship. Republican supporters said it would stop immigrants from voting illegally. Democrats said it would disenfranchise legal voters, particularly minorities, the poor and the elderly who would have difficulty coming up with documents to prove citizenship.

But with the midterm elections only seven weeks away and Congress slated to recess next week, GOP leaders have made border security, along with security-related bills on terrorist detainees and wiretapping, their most pressing business.

The House last week approved the bill, now before the Senate, that would build a 700-mile fence along one-third of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The three bills before the House on today contain many of the same provisions of the larger border security bill passed last December. One possible strategy is to include these smaller bills in a 2007 Homeland Security spending bill the House and Senate are now negotiating.

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The tunnel bill would criminalize the construction or use of unauthorized passageways under the border with a prison term of up to 20 years.

The other bills would make it easier to detain and deport noncitizen gang members and criminals, and clarify the authority of state and local law enforcement officials who volunteer to help in detaining illegal immigrants.

The bill the House passed Wednesday, meanwhile, would require everyone to present a photo ID before voting in federal elections by 2008. By 2010, voters would have to have photo IDs that certified they were citizens. In response to criticism that this would be a burden for the poor, the bill stipulates that states must provide the identification cards free of charge to those who can't afford them.

"Supporters of this Republican voter suppression bill will claim this bill is about preventing noncitizens from voting," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "It's just the opposite. It's a bill designed to prevent citizens from voting."

Republicans said photo IDs are already common practice in cashing checks, buying alcohol or boarding planes, and there was no intent to keep voters from the polls. "We want everyone to participate, to vote, and to know that their vote counts," said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who contracted polio as a youth and does not have a driver's license, said he was initially denied a voter ID required under a Missouri state law because he couldn't immediately produce a passport or birth certificate. His congressional ID card was not accepted.

A Missouri court earlier this month struck down the state law, and on Tuesday a state superior court judge in Georgia ruled that that state's law requiring a photo ID was an unconstitutional condition for voting.

It was uncertain whether the Senate would take up the voter ID bill this year.

The voter ID bill is H.R. 4844.

The fence bill is H.R. 6061.

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