By Annie Linskey GLOBE STAFF JANUARY 27, 2017
WASHINGTON As a senator, Barack Obama once offered measured
praise for the border control legislation that would become the
basis for one of Donald Trumps first acts as president.
The bill before us will certainly do some good, Obama said on
the Senate floor in October 2006. He praised the legislation,
saying it would provide better fences and better security along
our borders and would help stem some of the tide of illegal
immigration in this country.
Obama was talking about the Secure Fence Act of 2006,
legislation authorizing a barrier along the southern border
passed into law with the support of 26 Democratic senators
including party leaders like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and
Now its become the legal mechanism for Trump to order
construction of a wall between the United States and Mexico,
attempting tomake good on a key promise from the campaign trail.
Trump specifically cited the law in the first sentence of
Wednesdays executive order authorizing the wall.
The episode shows how concerns over border security occupied
Washington well before Trump made it the centerpiece of his
candidacy, and that Democrats were more than willing to offer
big sums of taxpayer money to keep Mexicans and other Latino
immigrants out of the United States. The border fence called for
in the 2006 law was far less ambitious than the wall Trump
envisions, and,as he is apt to do, he has made the issue bigger,
more explosive, and far more disruptive to US diplomacy.
Trump has also added his own twist that was never a part of the
2006 legislation, a promise that the Mexican people would pay
for the wall. But on Thursday White House spokesman Sean Spicer,
in a briefing aboard Air Force One, said that Trump would levy a
20 percent tax on all imports from Mexico to fund construction
of the barrier.
He estimated that the 20 percent tariff would bring in $10
billion a year and easily pay for the wall. Later, the White
House appeared to back away from the idea of an import tax.
Even before the highly controversial proposed funding mechanism
was made public Thursday afternoon, Mexican President Enrique
Peña Nieto announced that he was canceling his planned trip to
the United States next week, citing the new administrations
focus on the wall.
Former Mexican president Vicente Fox, who opposed the measure in
2006 when he was in office, had even harsher words for Trump.
Donald, dont be self-indulgent, he posted on his Twitter feed
Thursday. Mexico has spoken, we will never ever pay for the
For Democrats who generally support relaxed rules that offer a
path to citizenship for immigrants, the 2006 law was seen as the
better of two evils. The House had recently passed legislation
immigration advocates viewed as draconian because it would make
any undocumented immigrant a felon.
By comparison, the border fence didnt seem so bad. Moreover,
immigration reform advocates were beaten down after a wider
overhaul had stalled.
It didnt have anywhere near the gravity of harm, recalled
Angela Kelley, who in 2006 was the legislative director for the
National Immigration Forum. It was hard to vote against it
because who is going to vote against a secure fence? And it was
benign compared with what was out there.
The law flew through the Senate with a vote of 80 to 19. (One
senator, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, was not present. John
Kerry, the states other senator, voted against it.) In the
House, the measure passed 283 to 138, with 64 Democrats
supporting it. (The Massachusetts delegation was split.) From
there it went to then-President George W. Bush, who signed it 12
days before the 2006 mid-term elections.
The number of illegal immigrants in the United States reached
about 12 million in 2007, and has since dropped off.
The plan was not nearly as expansive as Trumps promise for a
wall along the entire border. It allowed for about 700 miles of
fencing along certain stretches. Congress put aside $1.4 billion
for the fence, but the whole cost, including maintenance, was
pegged at $50 billion over 25 years, according to analyses at
The government had constructed about 650 miles of fence by 2015,
most of it after passage of the act, according to a report last
year by the US Government Accountability Office.
In his 2006 floor speech, Obama nodded to the prevailing belief
in Washington that the bill wasnt going anywhere. This bill,
from my perspective, is an election-year, political solution,
he said. It is great for sound bites and ad campaigns.
Clinton also voted for the bill, though in a floor speech during
the debate she completely ignored the fence issue and heaped
praise on an amendment to it that would help New York farmers by
expanding the number of visas allowed for agricultural workers.
During her recent failed presidential campaign, however, she
referred to the vote.
I voted numerous times when I was a senator to spend money to
build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming
in, Clinton said at November 2015 town hall in New Hampshire,
and I do think that you have to control your borders.
Immigration reform advocates who worked on the bill and
opposed it remembered thinking the fence would never actually
There was a lot of analysis done that said you just cant do
it, said Kelley, who worked on the bill and is now the
Executive Director of Center for American Progress Action Fund.
It was more a political statement than a sound policy proposal.
A lot of people owned land [where the fence would go]. There
were endangered squirrels. None of that was being dealt with. It
really did feel like this was more of a slogan than a solution,
Only one current Democratic leader voted against the bill:
Thats Bernie Sanders, who was in the House of Representatives
at the time. He didnt make a statement about it one way or the
other, and his spokesman, Michael Briggs, declined to comment
Leading the opposition in the Senate was Kennedy, though he was
not present for the final vote.
From the floor he bemoaned the death of a larger bipartisan
overhaul to the immigration system and mocked the Republicans
for coming up with legislation he felt would do little to fix
Republican leaders wasted time, opportunity, and your money,
Kennedy said. For a $9 billion fence that wont do the job.
That is just a bumper sticker solution for a complex problem.
Its a feel-good plan that will have little effect in the real
But outside the halls of Congress, constituents took the
legislation very seriously.
Republicans held a series of field hearings about the fence
around the country, stirring up support for it.
Advocates jammed the phone lines, and even sent members of
Congress bricks that were intended to symbolize the wall they
wanted constructed on the southern border, according to a
Washington Post story from the time.
They were led by a senator who did always argue for the wall:
Jeff Sessions, whom Trump has selected to be the attorney
We do not have operational control of the border, Sessions
said during the 2006 debate. Fencing on the southern border is
and should be a part of our plan to recapture a legal system of
immigration in America. It remains one of our important
Annie Linskey can be reached at ***@globe.com. Follow
her on Twitter @annielinskey.