Tuesday, December 21, 2004

President Bush said yesterday he wants to reform immigration policy so that the Border Patrol will be “chasing crooks and thieves and drug-runners and terrorists,” and not the thousands who cross the border every day to find work.

Mr. Bush has for months tried to drum up congressional support for his plan to give illegal aliens “temporary worker cards” that would allow them to legally hold jobs that U.S. businesses say they can’t fill with American labor.

At his final formal press conference of the year, Mr. Bush said immigrants are pouring over the U.S. border, mostly from Mexico, to “put food on the table” and that “it makes sense for us to recognize that reality.

“We want our Border Patrol agents chasing, you know, crooks and thieves and drug-runners and terrorists, not good-hearted people who are coming here to work,” Mr. Bush said. “And therefore, it makes sense to allow the good-hearted people who are coming here to do jobs that Americans won’t do a legal way to do so. And providing that legal avenue, it takes the pressure off the border.”

Conservatives have resisted the president’s plan, arguing that it amounts to an amnesty for those who are currently breaking the law and that the relaxed rules could be exploited by terrorists.

Mr. Bush assured critics that “one of the important aspects of my vision is that this is not automatic citizenship.

“The American people must understand that,” Mr. Bush said. “If somebody who is here working wants to be a citizen, they can get in line like those who have been here legally and have been working to become a citizen in a legal manner.”

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) yesterday asked Mr. Bush to clarify his comments on his proposed guest-worker proposal, which the White House plans to put before Congress next year.

FAIR President Dan Stein said he wants Mr. Bush to provide “a comprehensive list” of what jobs Americans will not do, which would require that they be filled by foreign nationals, and explain why those jobs are not subject to free-market competition.

“Mr. President, you frequently talk about allowing the free market to work,” Mr. Stein said. “Why not apply this principle to the jobs you claim Americans will not do, and allow the free market to bid up wages for American workers?

“In your opinion, is upward mobility still a desirable objective for American workers?” he said.

The White House has pointed to California agriculture as an example of an industry where immigrants are needed to fill labor slots that pay too little for most Americans to take.

Mr. Bush said yesterday that as governor of Texas in the 1990s, he “was right there on the front lines of border politics” and understands the issue well.

“I know what it means to have mothers and fathers come to my state and across the border of my state to work,” Mr. Bush said. “Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River. [That] is what I used to tell the people of my state.”

Mr. Stein also asked how the government intended to pay “for the education of the children, the health care for the families,” and other services that foreign workers and their families require.

“You conceded in this morning’s press conference, the vetting process and background checks of Cabinet appointees failed to uncover problems with your Homeland Security nominee. Can you assure the American public that the vetting process and background checks on the millions of illegal aliens who will be applying for legal residence under your program will receive a more comprehensive investigation of their backgrounds?” he asked.

Asked about those concerns yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said there “already are measures in place” legally to check the background of prospective immigrants, and said that would also be part of Mr. Bush’s proposal.

Mr. Bush said he wants to change an immigration system that is “not working” and is “not compassionate.”

“And as a result, the country is less secure than it could be with a rational system,” Mr. Bush said.

The president added that his plan would “cut out the coyotes, who are smugglers of these people, putting them in the back of tractor-trailers in the middle of August in Texas, allowing people to suffocate in the back of the truck.”

Mr. Bush said he wants to “stop the process of people feeling like they got to walk miles across desert in Arizona and Texas in order to just feed their family and they find them dead out there.”

The president also touched on his proposal to overhaul Social Security during his press conference, but offered few details of how the private retirement accounts he envisions would work to help save the troubled entitlement.

“The temptation is going to be to get me to negotiate with myself in public,” Mr. Bush said, explaining that he doesn’t want to push the issue ahead of what are expected to be negotiations with Congress.

“This is all part of trying to get me to set the parameters apart from the Congress, which is not a good way to get substantive reform done,” Mr. Bush said. “As to personal accounts, it is essential to make the system viable in the out years, to allow younger workers to earn an interest rate more significant than that which is being earned with their own money now inside the Social Security trust.

“But the first step in this process is for members of Congress to realize we have a problem,” he said. “And so for a while, I think it’s important for me to continue to work with members of both parties to explain the problem, because if people don’t think there’s a problem, we can, you know, talk about this issue till we’re blue in the face, and nothing will get done.”

Social Security’s actuaries predict it will begin to run a deficit in 2018 and become insolvent in 2042. The Congressional Budget Office said it would cost between $1 trillion and $2 trillion to implement Mr. Bush’s plan, but the president counters by pointing to Social Security’s $11 trillion in long-term unfunded liabilities.

• Jerry Seper contributed to this report.

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