- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

MERIDA, Mexico — President Bush said yesterday he has proved his commitment to securing the U.S.-Mexico border and members of Congress now can turn to broad immigration overhaul.

In a press conference here, he told Mexican President Felipe Calderon he is “optimistic” about chances for reform this year, “because the mood in the Congress seems like it has changed, from skepticism last year to knowledge that getting a comprehensive bill will be in the nation’s interests.”

Mr. Bush said part of the reason for the change is he has taken steps to boost border security himself, leaving those lawmakers “more open-minded” to taking the next step.

“Over the past year, I believe we have shown the American people that there is a strong commitment to the rule of law, and I think members of Congress are now feeling more comfortable that the country is committed to rule of law,” he said.

Wrapping up a weeklong, five-country tour of Latin America yesterday, Mr. Bush and Mr. Calderon said they will expand information-sharing to combat drug trafficking, and Mr. Bush said he wants “to encourage people to use less drugs” to dry up the demand in the United States.

Mr. Calderon said the two men also agreed to set up a task force to sort out thorny trade disputes under the North American Free Trade Agreement on beans and corn, and said the two sides are considering adding new border crossings and building border bridges to speed up entry of people and goods.

“We do have the means, and in this meeting, we have seen the political will in order to reach shared goals,” Mr. Calderon said.

But immigration dominated the discussions here, just as it did in his previous stop in Guatemala, where Mr. Bush had to explain to Guatemalan President Oscar Berger that Guatemalans are not being singled out for deportation and rejected a Guatemalan reporter’s suggestion that all deportations be halted.

Speaking to his audience back home, Mr. Bush yesterday promised to work with both parties — a different message than the strategy he announced Monday of trying to win an agreement from Senate Republicans first.

Mr. Bush said a lot rides on Republicans being able to agree with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, who is likely to be the lead Democrat on the issue.

“If we can find that common ground, we have a very good chance of getting the bill out of the Senate, because Senator Kennedy is one of the best legislative senators there is,” Mr. Bush said. “He can get the job done.”

Mr. Kennedy said he, too, is optimistic this year.

In a statement yesterday he said he will probably take last year’s Senate bill, which passed 62-36 but failed to get a vote in the House, as the starting point this year.

That bill split illegal aliens into groups: Those who had the longest time in the United States in violation of U.S. law would be allowed to stay and put on an immediate path to citizenship, while those with less time would either have to return home for a short time, or be sent home entirely.

The bill also would create a program for hundreds of thousands of new foreign workers a year, who would also be on a path to citizenship.

“We’ll need to make common-sense changes to the legislation to reflect what we’ve learned over the past year,” Mr. Kennedy said. “But like last year, we will pass a strong, bipartisan and comprehensive bill that strikes a fair balance between enforcement, security and a path to earned citizenship.”

But opponents said giving illegal aliens a path to citizenship amounts to amnesty.

Mr. Bush yesterday denied that, saying amnesty to him was “automatic citizenship.”

“I think we can find a rational way forward, somewhere in between automatic citizenship and kicking people out of the country,” he said.

House Republicans last year questioned the Senate bill as lax on security. But Mr. Bush yesterday said he’s taken steps to deal with that.

He has deployed thousands of National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to provide aid to the U.S. Border Patrol. The Guard troops do not enforce immigration law, but help with surveillance and building facilities.

And Mr. Bush signed bills increasing the size of the Border Patrol, boosting detention facilities — both of which the administration says has cut down on crossings — and to build the fencing along the border.


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