US President George W. Bush on Thursday signed into law a bill providing for construction of 700 miles (1,126km) of added fencing along the US' southwestern border, calling the legislation "an important step toward immigration reform."
The new law is what most House Republicans wanted. But it is not what Senate Republicans or Bush originally envisioned, and at the signing, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, the president repeated his call for a far more extensive revamping of immigration law.
A broader measure, approved by the Senate last spring, would have not only enhanced border security but also provided for a guest worker program and the possibility of eventual citizenship for many illegal immigrants already in the country.
But that bill was successfully resisted by House Republicans, who feared a voter backlash against anything that smacked of "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. Those lawmakers portrayed the Senate bill as embracing just that, no matter what the measure's backers, including Bush, said to the contrary.
Eventually Bush realized that a broad approach was dead for this election year, and he bowed to political reality and embraced the House concept, at least for the time being. On Sept. 29, just before its members headed home to campaign, the Senate approved construction of 700 miles of fencing, which the House had approved earlier last month.
"I want to thank the members of Congress for their work on this important piece of legislation," Bush said on Thursday, greeting several lawmakers by name. "Ours is a nation of immigrants. We're also a nation of law. Unfortunately, the United States has not been in complete control of its borders for decades, and therefore illegal immigration has been on the rise."
A previously enacted homeland security spending bill provides US$1.2 billion for the fence and accompanying technology.
The fence idea has caused friction between the US and Mexico, as was demonstrated again on Thursday in Ottawa, where Mexican president-elect Felipe Calderon condemned it.
"Humanity made a huge mistake by building the Berlin Wall, and I believe that today the United States is committing a grave error in building the wall on our border," said Calderon, who was meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.