- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2007

GUATEMALA CITY - President Bush yesterday said he wants the House and Senate to pass immigration bills by August but said the U.S. will continue to send home illegal aliens caught in the meantime, disappointing his Guatemalan hosts who wanted all deportations to end.

“The United States will enforce our law. It’s against the law to hire somebody who’s in our country illegally, and we are a nation of law,” Mr. Bush said.

He said his plan is to find a bill “most Republicans are comfortable with” in the Senate, then begin working with Democrats in the Senate, before turning to the House.

But he received an earful from Guatemalan President Oscar Berger, who said he was worried Guatemalans are being deported “without clear justification,” based on a raid at a leather goods factory last week in Massachusetts.

“The Guatemalan people would have preferred a more clear and positive response no more deportations, so to say,” he said, according to a translation of his remarks at a joint press conference with Mr. Bush.

Mr. Bush had come to Guatemala to tout what he called yesterday the United States’ “great mission of compassion” in Latin America.

He visited a clinic to watch U.S. military doctors and nurses dispense health care, and lugged lettuce at a produce-packing plant that supplies Wal-Mart Central America, among other customers, to demonstrate the benefits of free trade.

“We want people to achieve their God-given potential,” Mr. Bush told farmers while visiting the fourth country in his five-nation tour of Latin America.

In their press conference later, the two leaders also said there is a need for regional cooperation and information-sharing to combat drug-trafficking.

“We should no longer work in isolation; we should work jointly,” Mr. Berger said, while his U.S. counterpart promised to try to reduce Americans’ drug use to dampen the market.

“I am a ‘If they break the law, arrest them,’ person,” Mr. Bush said.

But moments later, the press conference discussion turned back to its dominant topic Mr. Bush’s plan to legalize most of the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in the U.S., with three of four questions touching on the issue.

One Guatemalan reporter charged the U.S. with showing a “lack of respect for the rights of Guatemalan immigrants.” The reporter asked why deportations can’t be suspended because Mr. Bush expects to sign a bill that will legalize most illegal aliens.

Last week, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided a Michael Bianco Inc. leather goods factory in New Bedford, Mass., netting more than 350 illegal aliens, many of them Guatemalans. They are now being detained as they await immigration proceedings.

“The deportations took place as a result of law enforcement enforcing the law,” Mr. Bush said. “They didn’t say ‘Well maybe there’s Guatemalans there, let’s go and get them.’”

Mr. Bush said the fact that Guatemalans are asking about deportations shows that his efforts to boost enforcement work.

But one congressman has vowed to hold hearings on the raid. And Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate’s immigration subcommittee, said the raid has separated families and “traumatized children.” He sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff demanding that the aliens caught in the raid be returned to Massachusetts and be released pending immigration proceedings.

“I’m appalled at the insensitivity of the officials at ICE,” he said.

In Guatemala, Mr. Bush laid out his legislative strategy for trying to win a bill this year, after failing last year because of opposition from members of his own party who said what he wants amounts to amnesty.

His first step, he said, is to find “a coherent Republican position in the Senate” and then go into negotiations with Mr. Kennedy, who is likely to be the author of the main Democrat bill. After Senate passage, he will turn to the House, where Democrats’ control of the rules of debate should make it easier to win passage.

“It seems like to me we’ve got to get this done by August,” Mr. Bush said, though he then said he didn’t want to put a timetable on Congress because “timetables are generally meant to be broken.”

One issue that could sink an agreement this year is whether the future guest-workers would also have a path to citizenship.

Mr. Bush has steadfastly said they will be required to go home a position on which most Republicans seem to agree. But Democrats are split on the issue, as are labor unions.

Guatemala’s interest in having its citizens work in the U.S. is not unique. Many Latin American countries are hooked on remittances sent by their nationals living in the U.S. often illegally. Mr. Bush is visiting the four countries at the top of that list: Mexico, ranked first with $20 billion in remittances; Brazil, at $6.4 billion; Colombia, at $4.1 billion; and Guatemala fourth, with $3 billion per year.

Last month, Mr. Berger, traveling in Florida, visited a day laborer center and called the Guatemalan nationals who used it, including illegal aliens, “the heroes and heroines of Guatemala,” according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The White House said one in ten persons born in Guatemala is living in the United States.

Early in the day, the Guatemalan leader greeted his American counterpart in his country’s National Palace courtyard, where accords to end a three-decade-long civil war were signed in 1996. Mr. Bush put a white rose in the bronze memorial.

Mr. Berger said he and Mr. Bush would “address differences between us in a constructive spirit.”

A crowd of about 500 protesters marched on the National Palace, carrying anti-Bush signs and burning the U.S. leader in effigy. More than 5,000 Guatemalan police and soldiers guarded the palace, preventing the demonstrators from getting too close.

During his helicopter visit to villages in the Guatemalan hills, Mr. Bush boosted the Central American Free Trade Agreement as a boon to both U.S. and Guatemalan workers.

“Free trade is important for a lot of people. It’s important for our country; it’s a gateway. It creates jobs in America just like it creates jobs here,” he told farmers and workers at a cooperative vegetable-packing facility in Chirijuyu after being introduced by Mariano Canu, a former sugar-cane laborer who used U.S. financial aid to help found the cooperative in the 1990s.

“The people here work hard,” Mr. Canu said. “They want to sell you our products.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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