By Terence P. Jeffrey, CNSNews.com
(CNSNews.com) - In a CNN debate in Austin, Texas, Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton agreed Thursday night that the Secure Border Fence Act of 2006, which directs the secretary of Homeland Security to construct 700 miles of double border fencing along specific sections of the U.S.-Mexico border, should not be enforced as written.
"I think when (Obama and I) voted for this, we were voting for the possibility that where it was appropriate and made sense, it would be considered," said Clinton.
Stressing her desire to be deferential to the views of people who live along the border in Texas -- which on March 4 will hold a primary that is widely viewed as a must-win event for the New York senator -- Clinton said of a border fence, "there may be limited places where it would work. But let's deploy more technology and personnel, instead of the physical barrier."
"This is an area where Senator Clinton and I almost entirely agree," said Obama. "I think that the key is to consult with local communities, whether it's on the commercial interests or the environmental stakes of creating any kind of barrier."
Both Clinton and Obama argued that the Bush administration was being too aggressive in pushing to build the border fence mandated by the 2006 law.
The agreement among the senators came in response to a question asked by CNN's John King, one of the moderators of the debate.
On September 29, 2006, the Senate voted 80-19 for passage of H.R. 6061, the Secure Fence Act of 2006. (It passed the House on September 14, 2006, by a vote of 283-138). Clinton and Obama both voted for the act.
The law mandated that the secretary of Homeland Security build more than 700 miles of double fencing along specific segments of the U.S.-Mexico. Then House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R.-N.Y.), the principal sponsor of the law, explained its purpose in a floor speech on the day of the 2006 House vote. "It provides over 700 miles of two-layered reinforced fencing," King said, according to the Congressional Record.
An October 1, 2006 story in the Washington Post, which reported that the bill had passed in the Senate, carried this headline: "Border Fence is Approved; Congress Sets Aside Immigration Overhaul in Favor of 700-Mile Barrier."
"The Senate gave final approval Friday night to legislation authorizing the construction of 700 miles of double-layered fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border, shelving President Bush's vision of a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration laws in favor of a vast barrier," said the lead in the Post story.
All 435 members of the House of Representatives and one third of U.S. senators faced reelection contests just one month after passage of the Secure Fence Act.
The actual text of the law -- enacted with Clinton's and Obama's votes -- is unambiguous.
"[T]he Secretary of Homeland Security," the law says, "shall provide for at least 2 layers of reinforced fencing, the installation of additional physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors--(i) extending from 10 miles west of the Tecate, California, port of entry to 10 miles east of the Tecate, California, port of entry; (ii) extending from 10 miles west of the Calexico, California, port of entry to 5 miles east of the Douglas, Arizona, port of entry; (iii) extending from 5 miles west of the Columbus, New Mexico, port of entry to 10 miles east of El Paso, Texas; (iv) extending from 5 miles northwest of the Del Rio, Texas, port of entry to 5 miles southeast of the Eagle Pass, Texas, port of entry; and (v) extending 15 miles northwest of the Laredo, Texas, port of entry to the Brownsville, Texas, port of entry."
Early in Thursday night's debate, moderator John King asked about the legally mandated fence, noting that many people in southern Texas oppose it.
/ldblquote Senator, back in 2006, you voted for the construction of that fence. As you know, progress has been slow," said King. "As president of the United States, would you commit tonight that you would finish the fence and speed up the construction, or do you think it's time for a president of the United States to raise his or her hand and say, 'You know what? Wait a minute. Let's think about this again. Do we really want to do this?'"
Clinton's full answer, including some back and forth with King, runs more than 500 words in the transcript of the debate posted by CNN on it website.
"Well, I think both Senator Obama and I voted for that as part of the immigration debate," she started. "And having been along the border for the last week or so--in fact, last night I was at the University of Texas at Brownsville -- and this is how absurd this has become under the Bush administration. Because, you know, there is a smart way to protect our borders, and there is a dumb way to protect our borders. And what I learned last night when I was there with Congressman [Solomon] Ortiz [D.-Texas] is that the University of Texas at Brownsville would have part of its campus cut off.
"This is the kind of absurdity that we're getting from this administration," Clinton continued. "I know it because I've been fighting with them about the northern border. Their imposition of passports and other kinds of burdens are separating people from families, interfering with business and commerce, the movement of goods and people. So what I've said is that I would say, wait a minute, we need to review this. There may be places where a physical barrier is appropriate.
"I think when both of us voted for this, we were voting for the possibility that where it was appropriate and made sense, it would be considered," said Clinton. "But as with so much, the Bush administration has gone off the deep end, and they are unfortunately coming up with a plan that I think is counterproductive.
"So I would have a review," she said. "I would listen to the people who live along the border, who understand what it is we need to be doing to protect our country."
When King then asked her whether she now thought her vote for the border fence was wrong, she did not give a yes-no answer. Instead, she suggested using more manpower and technology, instead of fencing, to secure the border.
"But, you know, John," she said, "there's a lot we've learned about technology and smart fencing. You know, there is technology that can be used instead of a physical barrier. It requires us having enough personnel along the border so that people can be supervising a certain limited amount of space and will be able to be responsive in the event of people attempting to cross illegally."
She then suggested President Bush was being too aggressive in trying to build the fence. "I think that the way that the Bush administration is going about this, filing eminent domain actions against landowners and municipalities, makes no sense," she said.
"So what I have said is, yes, there are places when after a careful review, again listening to the people who live along the border, there may be limited places where it would work," she said. "But let's deploy more technology and personnel, instead of the physical barrier.
"I frankly think that will work better and it will give us an opportunity to secure our borders without interfering with family relations, business relations, recreation and so much else that makes living along the border, you know, wonderful," she said. "And the people who live there need to have a president who understands it, will listen to them and be responsive."
Obama indicated that he agreed with Clinton in this area. "Well, this is an area where Senator Clinton and I almost entirely agree," he said. "I think that the key is to consult with local communities, whether it's on the commercial interests or the environmental stakes of creating any kind of barrier. And the Bush administration is not real good at listening. That's not what they do well.
"And so I will reverse that policy," Obama said. "As Senator Clinton indicated, there may be areas where it makes sense to have some fencing. But for the most part, having border patrolled, surveillance, deploying effective technology, that's going to be the better approach."