President Bush yesterday said Americans will soon realize they need the immigrants and foreign temporary workers that would have been allowed by his immigration bill, which was defeated in the Senate last month.
Mr. Bush, in a town hall session in Nashville, Tenn., also refused to say whether he will pardon two U.S. Border Patrol agents convicted of shooting a fleeing drug-smuggling suspect, saying the prosecutor was a friend of his who made his case to the jury that convicted the agents.
If Mr. Bush was hoping the immigration issue would disappear after his bill's failure, those hopes were dashed, as he was asked repeatedly about border security during the forum — meant to highlight his commitment to cutting the deficit.
"The bill failed and I can't make a prediction to you at this point, sir, where it's going to head," the president told one questioner. "I can make you a prediction, though, that pretty shortly people are going to be knocking on people's doors saying, man, we're running out of workers."
Mr. Bush said there are workers who will do jobs Americans aren't doing in the agriculture sector in particular, and without them the jobs will go unfilled.
Lawmakers in Congress say they accept defeat of a broad bill and are instead turning to piecemeal efforts, such as in-state tuition for illegal-alien college students, an agriculture worker program and enhanced law enforcement.
Even Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and Mr. Bush's partner in pressing for a broad bill over the last few years, said in an interview with New Hampshire Public Radio last week that it's time to look at a piece-by-piece approach.
But Mr. Bush yesterday continued to tie border security to plans for a temporary worker program and legalizing the 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens already in the country and giving them a path to citizenship.
"It's impractical to kick somebody out," he said.
With the immigration bill dead, many activists turned their attention to the case of the two Border Patrol agents, Ignacio Ramos and Jose Alonso Compean, who are serving 11- and 12-year prison terms, respectively. Pressure on Mr. Bush to pardon them or commute their sentences has grown since he commuted the sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.
One questioner asked Mr. Bush if he would "pardon these men that are unjustly in prison."
"I'm not going to make that kind of promise in a forum like this," the president said, adding that he is a friend of Johnny Sutton, the prosecutor whose office handled the case against the two agents, and who he called "a fair guy."
The president said "people need to look at the facts," and said the agents were convicted by a jury after the facts were heard.
But after a Senate committee hearing on the facts of the case this week, Sens. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and John Cornyn, Texas Republican, wrote Mr. Bush asking him to commute the agents' sentences. Mrs. Feinstein said it is clear the sentences "do not match the crime."
• Jerry Seper contributed to this article.