President Bush yesterday tried to shift the focus of immigration reform away from his unpopular plan for a guest-worker program and toward a crackdown on illegal border crossers.
“We’re going to secure the border by catching those who enter illegally and hardening the border to prevent illegal crossings,” Mr. Bush said after meeting with border and customs agents in Tucson, Ariz.
“We’re going to strengthen enforcement of our immigration laws within our country,” he added. “And, together with Congress, we’re going to create a temporary-worker program.”
The program would allow illegal aliens to remain in the United States for up to six years, which is anathema to conservatives.
“The president’s plan is nothing more than a massive illegal alien amnesty on a six-year time delay,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “His temporary-worker program, which will be anything but temporary, is the death knell for America’s middle class.”
The president acknowledged the unpopularity of his plan, but insisted it is necessary.
“Listen, there’s a lot of opinions on this proposal — I understand that,” he said. “But people in this debate must recognize that we will not be able to effectively enforce our immigration laws until we create a temporary-worker program.”
Mr. Bush wants Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform package next year that includes both a guest-worker program and an increase in border security. Senate Republicans generally agree, although House Republicans are working on legislation limited to border security.
Yesterday, for the first time, Mr. Bush praised the House approach as a good first step toward comprehensive reform.
“The House plans to vote on this legislation soon,” he said. “I urge them to pass a good bill.”
But he added that he hoped the Senate-backed guest-worker program will be incorporated into the final legislation.
“I’m optimistic that Congress will rise to the occasion,” the president said. “By passing comprehensive immigration reform, we’ll add to this country’s security, to our prosperity and to justice.”
Democrats found themselves in the unusual position of agreeing with the Republican president, although they took the opportunity to slam House conservatives.
“You have advocated a comprehensive approach to immigration reform, a view at odds with many members of your party in Congress,” wrote Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, in a letter to Mr. Bush. “As Congress finally begins to address this problem, I hope that you will stand up to the right-wing of your party and stand up for what is right.”
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said the president “must demonstrate leadership by saying no to his right-wing allies who want to close our borders and yes to the business community, labor unions and Hispanic Americans who want realistic and comprehensive immigration reform.”
White House press secretary Scott McClellan acknowledged that the Bush administration spent the first term “emphasizing” a guest-worker program over tougher border security. But that emphasis is shifting, in part to placate conservatives who have long railed against illegal immigration.
Mr. Bush insisted that the two initiatives are not mutually exclusive.
“America has always been a compassionate nation that values the newcomer and takes great pride in our immigrant heritage,” he said. “Yet we’re also a nation built on the rule of law.
“The American people should not have to choose between a welcoming society and a lawful society,” he added. “We can have both at the same time.”
He was careful to have much tough rhetoric in his speech, promising “to promptly return every illegal entrant we catch at the border with no exceptions.”
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said that promise is “not just a surrender to the far right, it’s an irresponsible policy that does little to make America safer.”