- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004

President Bush alternated between high spirits and nonchalance at his press conference this week, but on one subject he became emotional, even passionate — immigration reform.

And it was unusual to hear an American president speak up on behalf of illegal immigrants. He twice referred to people sneaking across the border to work as “good-hearted,” his new favorite accolade.

“First, we want our border patrol agents chasing crooks and thieves and drug runners and terrorists, not good-hearted people who are coming here to work,” he said.

He also put illegal immigration in another unusual context, one that in its reference to “values” harked back to the presidential campaign: “Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River, is what I used to tell the people of my state. People are coming to put food on the table, they’re doing jobs Americans will not do.”

Mr. Bush has made immigration reform one of the top priorities of his second term along with Social Security, tort reform, deficit reduction and permanent tax cuts.

The heart of his reform would give employed illegal immigrants three-year visas and allow foreign workers who can prove they have a job waiting into the country on a similar three-year visa.

He did not go into detail on how these visas could be converted into green cards, but anticipating the common objection that his plan rewards those who broke the law, the president said if the temporary workers want to become Americans “they can get in line like those who have been here legally and have been working to become a citizen in a legal manner.”

How Mr. Bush fights this battle will be fascinating because the fiercest opponents to his plan are Republicans on the right, the “base” he so carefully catered to during the campaign. These GOP lawmakers plan on going the other way on immigration — stepped-up border security, barring illegals from getting driver licenses and making deportation easier.

The shape and direction of immigration reform is eminently debatable. What’s not debatable is that the status quo is not working. This is an issue on which the president should spend some of that political capital.

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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