The Senate has passed and sent to US President George W. Bush a bill authorizing 1,100km of fencing on the US-Mexico border as a deterrent to illegal immigration, just weeks before congressional elections.
The 80-19 vote on Friday night was among the senators' final tasks before leaving to campaign ahead of Nov. 7 elections. The fence bill was passed by the House of Representatives two weeks ago.
The fence would cover one-third of the border. No one knows how much it will cost, but a separate bill also on the way to the White House makes a US$1.2 billion down payment on it. A 23km segment of fence under construction in San Diego is costing US$126.5 million.
In addition to money for starting work on the fence, a homeland security bill passed on Friday by the House and later by the Senate includes US$380 million to hire 1,500 more Border Patrol agents and money to build detention facilities to hold 6,700 more illegal immigrants until they can be deported.
"We have made giant steps in terms of our ability to control illegal immigration," House Majority Leader John Boehner told reporters.
The fence bill became House Republicans' immigration focus last month after they abandoned Bush's call to bring millions of illegal immigrants into the US mainstream.
In addition to the money in the Homeland Security spending bill, Boehner cited Bush's deployment of the National Guard on the border and more frequent arrests of illegal immigrants at work sites.
"The perception that has been painted mistakenly is that the United States government, our Congress is not delivering to the American people on a huge problem that's out there," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. "We're active."
Democrats and immigration advocates say Republicans can hardly claim victory.
House Republicans failed to win measures for deporting immigrant gang members and empowering local police to enforce immigration laws. Their biggest obstacle turned out to be another Republican, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said the border security achievements trumpeted by Republicans do not measure up to the more comprehensive reforms her party backed.
What the Republicans call achievements fall "very far short of what Democrats have proposed over and over and over again," she said.
After a debate that stretched over three months, the Senate in May passed a sweeping immigration bill that combined tougher border enforcement measures with new guest worker programs and a plan to give millions of illegal immigrants already in the US a shot at citizenship.
Despite Bush's ringing endorsement of the measure, the House would have no part of it, sticking to the bill it passed five months earlier that would treat illegal immigrants and people who offer them aid as felons.