- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 26, 2006

President Bush, stepping up his focus on border security in the run-up to the Senate immigration debate this week, yesterday used his weekly radio address to tout increased spending on related law enforcement.

“Comprehensive immigration reform begins with securing our borders,” Mr. Bush said.

The president cited a 66 percent increase in border-security funding since he took office, along with a 42 percent increase in interior-enforcement spending and a total of 6 million illegal aliens caught and returned home.

The administration failed in the early part of the immigration debate by not concentrating on border security, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Thursday, but Mr. Bush has been committed all along to enforcing the law.

“I think that he was focusing on all aspects. I’m not sure that all aspects were getting the kind of attention that maybe it should have,” Mr. McClellan said. “That’s probably, from a communication standpoint, probably our fault.”

Mr. Bush yesterday underscored his commitment to border security by saying the government is trying to end the practice of releasing illegal aliens soon after capture because of a lack of space in detention centers.

“We’re adding more beds, so we can hold the people we catch, and we’re reducing the time it takes to send them back home,” the president said. “When illegal immigrants know they will be caught and sent home, they will be less likely to break the rules, and our immigration system will be more orderly and secure.”

In recent weeks, Mr. Bush has put far more emphasis on enforcement in an effort to convince lawmakers he is serious about the issue, even as he tries to win passage of a guest-worker program.

The president said he hopes the Senate, which begins floor debate this week, will pass a bill that includes both issues. Still, although he has laid out a somewhat detailed guest-worker proposal, he has not produced a major new enforcement measure. This leaves some House Republicans wondering how serious he is about it.

The House in December passed an enforcement-only bill that calls for fences and a way for employers to ensure they are hiring legal workers. The legislation was widely considered a rejection of the president’s call for guest workers and for temporary legal status for current illegal aliens.

Top House Republicans said they needed to prove the borders could be secured and laws enforced before voters would accept a new guest-worker program. However, Mr. Bush insists the issues fit together, arguing a new worker program would offer a legal channel to many currently illegal aliens and would allow the U.S. Border Patrol to focus on the others.

Opponents of a guest-worker plan said it rewards illegal aliens by giving them exactly what they seek — some sort of legal status. They also say the federal government has shown it cannot tell who is coming and going, which could be a security hole in any new program.

“Recent reports have shown that the agency that would handle a foreign-worker program is overwhelmed and is unable to correct or even detect rampant corruption among its employees,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican. “With no effective screening process in place, such a plan poses a major national security threat.”

For the first 18 months after he proposed his guest-worker plan in January 2004, Mr. Bush focused on the workers and economic need. Last October, however, with the House clearly moving toward a security-first approach, Mr. Bush began highlighting border security far more heavily.

In a town hall event and a press conference last week, the president said the first priority is securing the border.

“Step one, focus on enforcing the border,” he told an audience in Cleveland. “When we find people, [we] send them home, so that the work of our Border Patrol is productive work.”

Mr. Bush met Thursday with representatives of groups, mostly businesses, that want to legalize illegal-alien workers and create a new stream of foreign workers. Participants said Mr. Bush realizes his role, for now, is limited to pressing for action. But they also said the president promised to be active in helping to write the final proposal when the House and Senate go to conference on their bills.

In his radio address yesterday,Mr. Bush said he will attend a naturalization ceremony tomorrow and press for action on a comprehensive immigration bill.

But he stressed that he will not accept amnesty.

“Granting amnesty would be unfair, because it would allow those who break the law to jump ahead of people who play by the rules and wait in the citizenship line,” he said, adding that amnesty now would encourage another wave of illegal aliens in the future.

Mr. Bush also repeated his call for civility as the congressional debate continues.

“This is an emotional debate,” he said. “America does not have to choose between being a welcoming society and being a lawful society. We can be both at the same time.”

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