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Pressure, Frustration Mount
White House spokeswoman Erin Healey said she would not divulge internal discussions about what the president agreed to say last week, but she asserted that Bush has been "very engaged in this issue." She reiterated his support for a comprehensive bill that would tighten border patrols, toughen the enforcement of laws outlawing employment of undocumented workers, and expand a temporary guest-worker program for both illegal immigrants and legal foreign workers seeking access to the U.S. labor market.
Last night, citing Bush's Saturday radio address, in which he spoke of "a promising bipartisan compromise," Healey said Bush had expressed "strong support" for the Senate agreement.
With Bush on the sidelines, it may be the demonstrators who will drive the process forward.
As he watched tens of thousands of marchers in the streets of Phoenix, Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) noted that the demonstration kicked off with a rendition of the national anthem amid a sea of U.S. flags. Shadegg voted for the House bill, but he said yesterday's orderly, patriotic marches should help the cause of lawmakers from both parties who want to temper the bill and add an avenue to legal employment.
"Everybody is frankly astounded at the numbers of individuals who are willing to stand up and say they are here illegally," said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), whose suburban district is not far from Atlanta, where 50,000 marched. "If nothing else can give a picture of why we need to act rapidly, it's this."
Beyond admiration for the marchers and the belief that the marches will spur action, lawmakers are divided over where that action should lead. But House Republicans seem to be softening their opposition to offering illegal immigrants lawful employment or even citizenship.
"Personally, my views won't change just because somebody takes to the street with a sign, no matter how many there are. I have my principles," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), who backed the House bill. He added, however, that "a guest-worker program is part of the solution, not part of the problem."
Even Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), the firebrand leader of the movement to crack down on illegal immigration, struck a defensive tone. "Today's rallies show how entrenched the illegal alien lobby has become over the last several years," he said. "The iron triangle of illegal employers, foreign governments and groups like La Raza puts tremendous pressure on our elected officials to violate the desires of law-abiding Americans and to grant amnesty."
Public opinion may be shifting as well. House Republican leaders rushed members back to Washington last year for a rare December session, convinced that a measure to get tough on illegal immigration would help the party battle back against the resurgent Democrats.
But in the new Post-ABC News poll, completed Sunday, 50 percent of respondents said they trusted the Democrats to better handle the immigration issue, while 38 percent trusted Republicans. A third of Americans approved of the president's handling of the immigration issue, while 61 percent disapproved. Only his handling of gas prices showed lower approval ratings.
Three-quarters of those responding said the United States is not doing enough to secure its borders, but they appeared to have rejected the argument that immigrants are an economic threat. About 68 percent said illegal immigrants are filling jobs Americans do not want, compared with 29 percent who believe they are taking jobs from Americans.