The House voted last week to ask the Bush administration to examine the feasibility of building a 3,000-mile system of fences and other barriers along the Canadian border to prevent illegal immigration.
The measure specifies a study of a "state of the art" barrier, like the one along the Mexican border in San Diego County, Calif. That system consists of a double fence, with some razor wire, plus lights, roads, cameras and motion detectors.
The requirement for the study was attached to the "Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005," approved late Friday by a 239-182 vote. The bill itself would employ military and local law enforcement personnel to stop illegal entrants and require employers to verify the legal status of their workers.
Thursday, the House had voted 260-159 to attach the study requirement, sponsored by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Brian M. Higgins, D-Buffalo, voted for the study, while Reps. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, and Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, opposed it.
The amendment requires the secretary of homeland security to report back to Congress within a year on "the necessity of building such a system, and the feasibility of constructing such a system."
Passage of such legislation reflects how illegal immigration and terrorism have caught the political winds leading up to next year's off-year congressional elections.
"Are we really going to go back to walled cities and catapults?" Slaughter had argued during the debate.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., described "this Canadian thing" as "a real piece of work."
In ridiculing Hunter's proposal, DeFazio and other Democrats compared erecting barriers on the Canadian border to building a new Berlin Wall.
Higgins, however, defended his vote, saying in a statement that "a study of the need for a fence at the northern border will conclude that the notion is silly, and will do nothing to promote border and national security."
The Senate will consider immigration and border security legislation in February. Even though the Senate bill might not request a study of a northern barrier system, the Hunter amendment could be removed only by a House-Senate conference committee.
Hunter is likely to be a member of that panel.
The proposal caught Canadian officials by surprise. Canadian diplomats repeatedly declined to comment for the record, insisting the measure "is only speculative."
Scotty Greenwood, director of the Canadian-American Business Council, reacted cautiously. On the southern boundary of the United States, she said, the "issue is managing security," while on the Canadian border it is "managing opportunity."
The U.S. government, she said, "should focus on facilitating legitimate trade across the northern border."
"Building a fence between New York and Canada would be an economic disaster for Buffalo and for America," Slaughter said. "It would cripple our port and our regional economy.
"The security of our borders is extremely important, but so is the flow of tourists and commerce across our borders," Reynolds said. "This amendment does not take into serious consideration the unintended consequences and costs that a . . . fence would have on Western New York's economy.
"We need border security and economic security, and frankly I think we can do better."
In Friday's vote on the full immigration-border bill, Higgins was the only Democrat in the state to join Republicans, including Reynolds, in supporting the measure. Slaughter voted no.