'Unscrupulous' Firms Are Faulted

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006

President Bush told the nation's most prominent business group yesterday that "unscrupulous" employers have contributed to the illegal immigration crisis in the United States by knowingly hiring undocumented workers, and called for steep new penalties on those exploiting the shadow economy.

As part of his emerging public campaign for the immigration legislation pending in Congress, Bush visited the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to emphasize his focus on enforcement and to combat the conservative complaint that his immigration proposals add up to amnesty for millions of foreigners violating U.S. immigration law.

"Businesses that knowingly employ illegal workers undermine this law and undermine the spirit of America," the president said during a speech against a backdrop of U.S. flags, images of the Statue of Liberty and the slogan "Comprehensive Immigration Reform." "And we're not going to tolerate it in this country." Although most businesses abide by the law, he said, "there are some unscrupulous folks who want to take advantage of low-cost labor."

Bush's speech came hours before his administration reached an agreement with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to send the California National Guard to the Mexican border. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has criticized Bush's plan to dispatch 6,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican line to bolster overwhelmed Border Patrol agents, but he agreed yesterday to contribute 1,000 troops as long as the federal government picks up the full cost.

The president has tried to straddle a difficult political divide in the fight over immigration. For years, he has been promoting a guest-worker program that would allow millions of illegal immigrants already in the country to stay temporarily under certain conditions. He has also embraced a Senate plan that would offer a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants if they have been here for years, pay back taxes, pay a penalty, learn English and maintain a crime-free record.

At the same time, under withering criticism from within his own party, Bush has lately offered tough rhetoric and the National Guard plan to demonstrate his commitment to enforcing the law and to stop new waves of illegal immigrants from crossing the border. The Guard troops would stay until the government can hire an additional 6,000 Border Patrol agents. The House has passed legislation that focuses almost exclusively on enforcement and has resisted the Senate bill.

Bush used the occasion yesterday to press both sides in Congress to come up with a deal. He suggested that he is willing to concede some of what he wants. "The House and Senate bills will require effort and compromise on both sides," he said. "It's a difficult task. Yet the difficulty of this task is no excuse for avoiding it."

The chamber was an important setting for that message because corporate America has been among the leading forces backing Bush's guest-worker plan and the Senate approach, seeing the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants as a vital part of the U.S. economy.

Bush noted that the government is working to make it easier for businesses to check the status of would-be workers. He said both House and Senate bills would require employers to use a new online verification system called Basic Pilot. But he said the penalties for violating the law are too light, noting that a business that fails to check an employee's identification faces a fine as low as $100, and that one that knowingly hires an illegal immigrant faces a fine as low as $250.

"You might as well pay a speeding ticket," Bush said. He added: "We got to increase the penalties. If we want to be smart about work site enforcement, we got to say to somebody who's breaking the law, there's going to be a cost, and it's more than $250."

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