Bold Bush move on border fence

The Bush administration announced today that it intends on busting through the regulatory maze to get the border fence built by the end of the year. Using waivers passed by Congress, the construction will bypass environmental and bureaucratic rules to complete 670 miles of the barrier before Bush leaves office:

The Bush administration plans to use its authority to bypass more than 30 laws and regulations in an effort to finish building 670 miles of fence along the southwest U.S. border by the end of this year, federal officials said Tuesday.

Invoking the legal waivers — which Congress authorized — would cut through bureaucratic red tape and sidestep environmental laws that currently stand in the way of the Homeland Security Department building 267 miles of fencing in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, according to officials familiar with the plan. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the waivers had not yet been announced.

The move would be the biggest use of legal waivers since the administration started building the fence. Previously, the department has used its waiver authority for two portions of fence in Arizona and one portion in San Diego.

As of March 17, there were 309 miles of fencing in place, leaving 361 to be completed by the end of the year. Of those, 267 miles are being held up by federal, state and local laws and regulations.

This would certainly give Republicans reason to cheer in 2008. The completion of the fence will take a lot of the sting out of the immigration debate, which has bitterly resented the slow approach taken by both the White House and Congress to securing the southern border. Even the waivers now will not completely silence the critics; after all, the Bush administration had the same waivers in 2007 and didn’t use them.

George Bush obviously wants to go out on a high note next January, and he wants to settle immigration policy or at least set the table for comprehensive reform. This shows that the White House understands the need to provide border security before any hopes of temporary guest-worker programs or normalization processes can be considered. It comes far too late after 9/11, but at least it seems closer to reality than at any time before now.

Does this affect the upcoming elections? It may make McCain’s past positions on immigration less of an issue. If the fence exists before he takes office, he’s not going to tear it down, even if he does start working on other reform components. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton can’t exactly campaign on a removal platform, not with the popularity of securing the border in the US as bipartisan as it is. If they hoped to tweak McCain’s standing with conservatives by hammering on his immigration bills, this may have disarmed the Democrats on a major weakness.