Thursday, February 3, 2005

President Bush last night called for reforming U.S. immigration laws, saying that the current system is “outdated” and that lawmakers need to create a new policy that accepts “hard-working people” while protecting America’s borders.

The president said current laws “invite chaos at our borders,” in one paragraph that was the only reference to immigration reform in his speech. Mr. Bush had pledged to make his “guest-worker” proposal a top priority for his second-term agenda.

“It is time for an immigration policy that permits temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take, that rejects amnesty, that tells us who is entering and leaving our country, and that closes the border to drug dealers and terrorists,” Mr. Bush said.

But the president has a tough sell with many members of his own party, who said that what he is proposing is an amnesty.

“He is the only person around that I know of that does not think what he is talking about is amnesty. He is creating a new Webster’s dictionary definition,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus.

Mr. Tancredo said Mr. Bush, by devoting so little time to immigration, was saying volumes about the issue.

“It was short. It was designed to essentially pay attention to what he knows is a big issue, but he’s not going to dwell on it because he knows his position is not a winning position,” the Colorado Republican said, adding that he hopes that means Mr. Bush will not spend much political capital on this issue.

Mr. Bush told The Washington Times in an Oval Office interview last month that he planned to spend “political capital” this year to force debate in Congress over his immigration reform. He predicted that he would prevail, saying reforming immigration laws is a “high priority” and a “big issue.”

Mr. Bush last night called the immigration system “outdated” and “unsuited to the needs of our economy and to the values of our country.”

“We should not be content with laws that punish hard-working people who want only to provide for their families, and deny businesses willing workers,” he said.

Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said Mr. Bush, by sticking to a broad principle, has perfectly laid the ground for the debate.

“I think it’s a great setup actually. I’m really pleased,” he said. “The president, Karl Rove, they have been very clear since the election, this is a priority. They included it in the short list that made it into the State of the Union.”

Last January, Mr. Bush proposed a “guest-worker” program, which would allow up to 12 million illegal aliens now in the United States to take jobs that American workers don’t want. They would be eligible for renewable three-year work visas.

Mr. Bush contends that his plan is not an amnesty and is far different from the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to 2.7 million undocumented residents and sought to stop further illegal immigration through penalties on employers.

But many Republicans said they see a different priority.

“We have got to decide once and for all that we are not going to continue to reward bad behavior,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, adding that the first priority is to pass border-security improvements and measures to prevent illegal immigrants from using driver’s licenses.

The House is expected to vote next week on a plan by House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, to prohibit states from granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, to expand a fence along part of the U.S.-Mexican border near San Diego and to tighten criteria for political asylum.

Other House lawmakers are pushing proposals to make it easier for noncitizens to be deported if they come to the attention of law-enforcement officials.

The president’s plan also faces opposition from Democrats, who have signaled their desire to add worker protections, such as minimum wage and health benefits. Liberals also complain that the proposal fails to put illegal immigrants on a path to U.S. citizenship and have vowed to work to add conditions to the plan.

Americans support some sort of vehicle to accept illegal aliens now in the country, a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found. More than 60 percent of those surveyed think undocumented, noncitizens already living and working in the United States should be allowed to keep their jobs and encouraged to apply for legal status. Thirty-six percent favored automatic deportation for those people found working illegally in the United States.

The prospects for Mr. Bush’s plan are better in the Senate, where a fellow Texan, Republican Sen. John Cornyn, is pushing a proposal similar to Mr. Bush’s. Mr. Cornyn is the newly appointed head of a key subcommittee on immigration, and he plans to call hearings soon to begin a “national conversation” on the issue.

Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, also are working with the White House in an attempt to broker a bipartisan compromise.

Last night, Mr. Cornyn said Mr. Bush’s call for an immigration overhaul “is long overdue.”

“I agree with him that if we are going to have true border security, which we must have after 9/11, and if we are going to have homeland security — that is, know who is in our country, why they’re here and where they are — then we have simply got to reform our immigration system,” he said.

Mr. Sharry said among those three senators and Mr. Bush, prospects look good.

“The president’s interest shifts all the calculations in the regular order of the legislation process,” he said. “That’s why if Kennedy blesses it on the left and McCain sells it to the public, and Cornyn and others bless it on the right, you could have a very strong bill with lots of momentum and Bush’s blessing setting up a showdown in 2006 in the House.”

• Charles Hurt contributed to this report.

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