Capitol News By Meghan Boyer

Border-Fence Laws Signed

In a move against illegal immigration, President Bush signed two laws in October authorizing the payment and construction of a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. The first law will pay for the fence, and the second law authorizes its construction.

About $1.2 billion will be spent during the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2006, for southwest border fencing and other barriers. The money is part of a $33.8 billion package for domestic security programs, reported the Washington Post.

This action against illegal immigration comes after comprehensive immigration reform was blocked from passing earlier this year, largely due to differences between House and Senate legislation. Bush had hoped to address immigration issues with a temporary guest-worker program as well as increased security, reported the Washington Post. At the signing ceremony in Arizona, Bush said he still wanted a guest worker program to relieve pressure on the border with Mexico.

While the fence sends a message that the United States is serious about controlling immigration, it will likely complicate relations between the United States and Mexico. “Mexicans are livid about the plan, which is seen as a slap in the face to efforts during President Vicente Fox’s near-completed 6-year term to come to an agreement with Washington on immigration,” stated the New York Times.

Temporary H-2B Extension Approved

Congress passed legislation that temporarily extends the H-2B return worker exemption for one year. The fix, passed as part of the Defense Authorization Bill, allows workers who entered the United States with an H-2B visa during fiscal years 2004, 2005 or 2006 to enter the United States under an H-2B visa and not count against the 66,000 per year cap of seasonal immigrant visas.

The legislative provision that exempts most returning workers from counting against the numeric cap was first passed in 2005; it was set to expire on Sept. 30, 2006. Supporters of the provision continue to push for a permanent extension of the bill.

Sen. John Warner (R-VA) first added 2-year temporary fix legislative language to the Defense Authorization Bill; it passed the Senate floor earlier this session. The bill was then stymied by differences between House and Senate leadership. When an agreement was reached on a final bill, Sen. Warner negotiated a 1-year temporary fix to the program with Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Bush Signs Port Security Bill

On Oct. 13, President Bush signed into law a bill, known as the SAFE Ports Act of 2006, designed to enhance security at the nation’s 361 ports. Included in the bill are measures to prevent terrorists from smuggling nuclear weapons into the United States and background checks for port workers.

The law authorizes $400 million a year over five years for port security grants. It also establishes three pilot programs to evaluate the feasibility of scanning 100 percent of U.S.-bound cargo containers for nuclear and radiological material at foreign seaports, stated the Washington Post.

Furthermore, the new port security law allows for the development of advanced inspection equipment so U.S. Customs officials can inspect cargo containers for dangerous materials without opening them. The nation’s 22 largest ports, which handle 98 percent of the cargo coming into the country, according to the Washington Post, will be required to install radiation-detection technology by the end of 2007.

Yahoo News reported the bill codifies the Container Security Initiative, which deploys U.S. inspectors to foreign ports to screen U.S.-bound cargo, and the Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, a public-private initiative in which private shippers agree to improve security measures in return for certain benefits such as quicker U.S. port clearance.

Workers Win Wal-Mart Wage Suit

A Pennsylvania jury decided in early October that Wal-Mart Stores Inc. violated labor laws by forcing hourly employees to work through rest breaks and beyond their shifts without overtime pay. The decision could result in millions of dollars in damages, said lawyers for the employees. The jury did, however, rule in Wal-Mart’s favor on a separate charge that the company denied meal breaks to workers, stated the New York Times.

Two employees brought about the lawsuit on behalf of nearly 187,000 current and former Wal-Mart employees. They claimed the company made Pennsylvania workers miss more than 33 million rest breaks from 1998 to 2001. According to the Washington Post, at least 57 other wage-and-hour cases have been filed against the retailer across the United States. This case is one of several similar suits to go to trial.

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