Bush calls for compromise on immigration

Posted in United States | 16-May-06 | Author: Jim Rutenberg| Source: International Herald Tribune

"We do not yet have full control of the border, and I am determined to change that," the president said.
WASHINGTON President Bush proposed a plan on Monday to place 6,000 National Guard troops along the border with Mexico for at least a year, but urged Congress to find a balanced solution to illegal immigration that enforces the law and maintains the nation's tradition of openness.

Stepping directly into the middle of a debate raging within his own party and in cities and towns across the country, Mr. Bush offered a menu of proposals. They were intended both to salve conservatives who have demanded concrete steps to stem the flow of illegal workers across the border and to accommodate many other members of both parties and business groups who are seeking new ways of acknowledging the presence of about 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

"America needs to conduct this debate on immigration in a reasoned and respectful tone," Mr. Bush said during the address, carried by all of the major broadcast and cable news networks. "We cannot build a unified country by inciting people to anger, or playing on anyone's fears or exploiting the issue of immigration for political gain."

He combined a call for considerable increases in the number of border patrol agents and the number of beds in immigration detention centers with an endorsement of proposals that would give many illegal immigrants a chance to become legal and eventually gain citizenship.

He reiterated his proposal for a vast temporary worker program giving illegal immigrants the right to work here. But he also proposed to cut back on potential fraud by creating an identification card system for foreign workers that would include digitized fingerprints.

Mr. Bush made his proposals during a 17-minute address from the Oval Office that aides described as a bid to assert presidential leadership at a critical juncture for his administration, which has been beset by political troubles. They said he also wanted to complete an overhaul of immigration policy, an issue that has exploded in recent months into a passionate argument about national identity, economic needs and social strains.

On Monday, the Senate began debating for a second time this year legislation providing for enhanced border security but also a guest worker program and options for citizenship. Should the bill win approval, as Senate leaders predict, it will fall to Mr. Bush to help broker a compromise between that legislation and a competing bill approved in the House of Representatives in December that further criminalizes illegal immigrants by making it a felony to be in this country without visa status.

The president's speech was devised in large part to allay the concerns of House Republicans that the administration has not done enough to control the borders and that Mr. Bush's worker program would pave the way to amnesty for those here illegally.

Mr. Bush said a guest-worker system would alleviate pressure on the borders by creating an orderly way for illegal immigrants to take jobs many citizens do not want.

"These are not contradictory goals: America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time," Mr. Bush said.

He said he was not endorsing an automatic path to citizenship, adding, "That would be amnesty."

But, he said, it was not granting amnesty to allow illegal immigrants who have been here for several years - working, paying taxes and learning English - to get in the back of the citizenship line after paying a hefty fine and back taxes.

"Some in this country argue that the solution is to deport every illegal immigrant and that any proposal short of this amounts to amnesty," Mr. Bush said. "I disagree."

Some Republicans in the House indicated an unwillingness to back down from their insistence on enforcement-only legislation after the address.

"While I appreciate the president's willingness to tackle big problems," Representative Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri and the House majority whip, said in a statement after the speech, "I have real concerns about moving forward with a guest worker program or a plan to address those currently in the United States illegally until we have adequately addressed our serious border security problems."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, who has been deeply involved in the Senate negotiations on immigration, praised Mr. Bush "for his courage," but said he hoped that the National Guard proposal would not sidetrack the debate. Mr. Kennedy said that he was worried the National Guard was already spread too thin and that the plan warranted a close look by the Senate.

Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia and the chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, said he would hold hearings as soon as possible on the National Guard plan, which he said he supported.

But among the most important voices will be those of the governors of the four states abutting the southern border - Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California. It falls to them to make the plan for deploying the guard work.

Mr. Bush did not put specific price tags on the proposals he set out in his speech, which he delivered briskly and intently from behind his desk in the Oval Office, a setting that he has reserved until now for national addresses on war and national security.

White House officials said in a briefing for reporters Monday afternoon that the president was calling for $1.9 billion included in a supplemental budget bill now before Congress to be used for his proposals.

Some of that money would cover the National Guard deployment, though officials did not say exactly how much. Either way, they said, it will be up to the governors of the border states to decide if they want to take use more guard members to support the Border Patrol, and they are free to say no. Officials said governors would often have to ask for National Guard troops from fellow governors in nonborder states, who could also say no.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, a Republican, had initially balked at the plan. But he said Monday he was comfortable, if not overjoyed with the prospect of a temporary role for the National Guard, which he described as being stretched too thin already.

Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat, said the plan fell short. "The president is putting the onus on border governors to work out the details and resolve the problems with this plan," Mr. Richardson said in a statement.

Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, a Democrat, seemed more inclined to go along. Ms. Napolitano has been calling since last December for the federal government to pay for National Guard deployments. Defense Department officials turned her down, saying at the time that the idea was inconsistent with Bush administration policy.

The president said the National Guard troops would not be used to enforce the law but to support Border Patrol agents. Officials said the administration did not want to engage the guard in law enforcement activities to avoid irritating Mexico, which has expressed wariness that the plan would amount to militarizing the border.

"The Guard will assist the Border Patrol by operating surveillance systems, analyzing intelligence, installing fences and vehicle barriers, building patrol roads and providing training," Mr. Bush said.

David S. Cloud and Carl Hulse contributed reporting for this article.