President Bush last night said his administration has made huge strides clamping down on illegal border crossings, and called on Congress to finish the job this year by passing a guest-worker bill and extending citizenship rights to illegal aliens.
In a State of the Union address designed to highlight areas where he could work with the new majority Democrats, Mr. Bush put immigration front and center, along with education, health care and energy policy — all domestic issues where he thinks he can find common ground.
“Convictions run deep in this Capitol when it comes to immigration. Let us have a serious, civil and conclusive debate — so that you can pass and I can sign comprehensive immigration reform,” Mr. Bush said.
But the president’s push will isolate many conservative Republicans who oppose his immigration and education plans, and shows the precarious balancing act Mr. Bush will have to do with his own party as he works with Democrats to try to achieve legacy accomplishments.
“These last two years will be the years that the president’s trying to establish a legacy. Oh, how I wish there was a magnificent legacy already in place,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, who said the president is tearing their party apart over his immigration policy, which Mr. King called amnesty.
“You can hear the hammer drive the wedge right into the Republican Party,” said Mr. King, a supporter of Mr. Bush’s war on terror.
House Republicans last year blocked Mr. Bush from winning a guest-worker bill, instead sending him an enforcement bill that he signed.
Mr. Bush did not tread new ground on policy last night, instead repeating his demand for an immigration bill that tackles five issues: border security, interior enforcement, a new program for future foreign workers, a path to citizenship for current illegal aliens and a push to assimilate immigrants into society.
But his emphasis on border security was new, compared with his past three State of the Union addresses.
Mr. Bush promised to fulfill his pledge of doubling the size of the U.S. Border Patrol, and said, “We will enforce our immigration laws at the work site and give employers the tools to verify the legal status of their workers so there is no excuse left for violating the law.”
Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican and a supporter of Mr. Bush’s immigration stance, said it helps to have Mr. Bush continue to push the issue.
Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who acts as an informal adviser to the White House on the issue, said Mr. Bush knows he must convince Republicans who say they cannot work on a broad bill without first tackling border security.
“How does he do that? He speaks to the issue that’s holding them up. That’s the right thing to do,” she said. “He has the belief that if he pushes too far, they’re just going to push back. The main thing he can do is address some of their concerns and motivate them.”
Some of Mr. Bush’s supporters then want the president to get into policy details, calling lawmakers to the White House and hammering out a compromise himself. Others say he should stay above the fray and instead focus on pressuring his own party.
“If he would do either, I would be thrilled,” said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum. “So far he has made some terrific speeches about this issue, but yet, calling meetings, having press conferences, making phone calls, dispatching deputies to the Hill — any of those steps are absolutely critical.”
She said Mr. Bush has made a solid start, “but we’re far from it being into the end zone.”
For now, Mr. Bush’s focus appears to be on convincing his own party he is serious about enforcement.
Southwest border apprehensions were down 26 percent from October through December 2006, compared with the same period in 2005. U.S. Border Patrol officials said that was a result of the president’s decision last year to boost Border Patrol resources and deploy National Guard troops to help. Apprehensions of non-Mexican illegal aliens fell 58 percent.
Immigration authorities say fewer apprehensions means fewer individuals are trying to cross, though critics say it could mean illegal aliens are shifting to cross in less-well-patrolled places.
Mr. Bush also pointed to stepped-up work-site enforcement, saying the number of arrests last year was seven times the level in 2002.
But Mr. King said 1,000 illegal aliens still cross the border each day and more needs to be done. He said Mr. Bush should start by following through on building 700 miles of border fence and producing the report on operational control of the border that he agreed to in signing the fence bill.