By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 8, 2006
OMAHA, June 7 -- Continuing his campaign to build support for comprehensive immigration legislation, President Bush on Wednesday emphasized that illegal immigrants who want to stay here should learn English and demonstrate that they are committed to assimilating into American culture.
After visiting a community center where immigrants learn English, Bush coupled a call for strict border enforcement with a plea that newcomers be treated compassionately.
He said immigrants should know there is a legal way to stay, if they are willing to make the effort: "One is to say you got to pay a fine for being here illegally. You got to learn the English language. In other words, you got to repay a debt to society and learn the skills necessary to assimilate into our society. Show us you've been working hard."
In recent weeks, Bush has labored to convince conservatives that he has heard their demands for a more serious effort to prevent illegal immigrants from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. He is calling for a doubling of U.S. Border Patrol agents and is deploying 6,000 National Guard troops to bolster border enforcement in the meantime.
On Wednesday, Bush appeared to put greater emphasis on other elements of the debate, visiting a community center that offers assistance to immigrants living in Omaha. He also announced the creation of a federal task force to help people at the grass roots teach English and civics to newcomers.
Bush said the United States is "a compassionate nation that treats people decently."
To that end, he said, Congress must approve a plan that would give hope to those illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for a long time. "It makes no sense at all to say we can find people and run them out of the country," Bush said. "For some, I guess that sounds appealing. It's impractical."
"It is not the right thing to do," he added.
Bush is essentially backing the thrust of the plan approved by the Senate, which would couple greater border security with a guest-worker program and giving long-standing residents a chance of earning citizenship. The House has approved a plan that focuses on border security and avoids any legalization provisions.
Nebraska has experienced a surge in immigration in recent years, and the issue could resonate in a campaign that will see Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) face a stiff challenge. While Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has been a champion of the president's approach, Nelson has questioned what he terms Bush's "amnesty plans."
Reacting to Bush's appearance, Nelson said, "Nebraskans want to secure the border first and then deal with the 12 million illegal immigrants already here."
Bush took an unexpected shot at Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, with whom the administration has long been at odds. Told by one woman at the center, Lourdes Secola, that she was from Venezuela, Bush said he is worried about her country.
"I think it will be okay," Bush told Secola. "But it's going to take awhile. Sometimes leaders show up who do a great disservice to the traditions and people of a country."