President Bush yesterday used his weekly radio address to urge listeners to support the immigration deal reached by a handful of senators last week, even as new poll numbers showed the immigration issue is hurting Mr. Bush’s job-approval ratings.
The president has invested heavily in getting an immigration bill passed and signed this year, calling it one of his top priorities after Democrats won control of Congress in November.
“I realize that many hold strong convictions on this issue, and reaching an agreement was not easy,” Mr. Bush said, praising the 10 senators seven Republicans and three Democrats who crafted the deal, forgoing the usual committee process in favor of closed-door negotiations. “This bill brings us closer to an immigration system that enforces our laws and upholds the great American tradition of welcoming those who share our values and our love of freedom.”
Two Cabinet officials Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez also helped broker the talks. Last week, their presence was unmistakable and voluble, with a gaggle of security personnel and staff encircling the two men as they shuttled from room to room, working the deal and keeping leaders informed of progress.
The deal was announced Thursday, but the actual bill expected to be hundreds of pages long hadn’t been completed by Friday night. The Senate floor debate is scheduled to begin tomorrow, and Democratic leaders have said they want it wrapped up by the end of the week.
Some Republicans are already protesting that short time frame.
“This issue is far too important to jam into a couple days,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican and a strong opponent of the plan. “This can be fixed, but it will take time, and there is no way the Senate can responsibly complete this debate in one week.”
At the heart of the deal is a political compromise: Democrats won access to citizenship rights for illegal aliens, while Republicans got a revamped immigration system for the future that would reward those with needed skills as well as those with family ties to U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.
But the deal is too harsh for some lawmakers, and not strict enough for others. Its fate could depend on whether senators, and the voters who elected them, view the deal as an amnesty for the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in the country.
“This proposal could wave a magic wand and give as many as 12 million illegal immigrants automatic legal status,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat. “This amnesty plan is no fairy tale; it is a bad dream.”
But the White House denies that, arguing amnesty would be granting legal residence with no punishment.
Instead, the White House argued in an extensive press release that under this deal, illegal aliens will be granted instant legal “probationary” status, preventing them from being deported as current law calls for. The White House said they would have to pass a background check and pay a fine to obtain a new “Z” visa allowing them a more permanent status.
And if they want to obtain a green card, signifying legal permanent residence, they would have to go home briefly and also demonstrate English skills something that is currently only required for naturalized citizenship.
“The key to unlocking the full promise of America is the ability to speak English,” Mr. Bush said yesterday. “This bill affirms that English is the language of the United States, and it provides new opportunities for immigrants to learn English and embrace the shared ideals that bind us as a nation.”
Meanwhile, a new Rasmussen Reports poll found Mr. Bush’s approval rating dropped to an all-time low for that poll, at 34 percent.
“The president’s ratings have tumbled each time immigration reform dominates the news,” Scott Rasmussen, president of Rasmussen Reports, said in his analysis.
Mr. Rasmussen said that his polling last year, after Mr. Bush gave an Oval Office address laying out his plans for more border enforcement and giving illegal aliens a path to citizenship, found only 39 percent supported the president’s position.