Bush Makes Push To Resolve Status Of Illegal Workers

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 10, 2007

YUMA, Ariz., April 9 -- President Bush outlined the latest version of his plan to overhaul the nation's immigration laws Monday, renewing his support for a guest-worker program for those with low skills and issuing a vague call for a resolution of the legal status of the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the country.

Speaking at the dedication of a state-of-the-art Border Patrol station here, a few miles from the U.S.-Mexican border, Bush called on Congress to pass the type of comprehensive immigration legislation that he has been pushing with little success since his earliest days as president. Bush said the overhaul should combine increased border security and added pressure on employers who hire illegal immigrants with a legal avenue for large numbers of guest workers to come into the country, while resolving the status of undocumented workers already here.

"Congress can pass a comprehensive bill, and I can sign it into law this year," Bush said, without offering a detailed proposal.

Since becoming president, Bush has viewed immigration as an issue on which he could make his mark as a "compassionate conservative" while extending the reach of the Republican Party to the fast-growing ranks of Latino voters, who tend to lean Democratic. But the swirling politics surrounding the emotional issue have left Bush groping for a viable path toward a solution, even as his political capital continues to be drained by the war in Iraq.

Saying that "family values don't stop at the Rio Grande River," Bush spoke of the hardworking immigrants who risk their lives to sneak across the southern border to provide for their families and contribute to the national fabric in the same way immigrants have for generations. In passing any new legislation, he said, Congress should honor "our proud history as a nation of immigrants."

Bush came under pressure from many Republicans who wanted him to do more to stop illegal immigration before last fall's midterm elections. While the pressure caused the president to support an "enforcement only" measure as a first step toward revamping immigration policy, the strategy did not necessarily help some of the staunchest advocates of border-security policies.

Here in Arizona, a state keenly affected by illegal immigration, Gov. Janet Napolitano (D), who favors a guest-worker program, had a convincing reelection victory. Meanwhile, then-Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R), who had raised the specter of mass deportations of illegal immigrants, lost his reelection bid to Democrat Harry E. Mitchell, who favors a more balanced approach.

Some advocates say Bush is aware of those lessons and of the future implications for the GOP among Hispanic voters. "He wants a legacy on immigration, to be sure," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "But politically, if the Republicans repeat their 30 percent 2006 Latino performance, they can't win the White House and take back the Congress. Period."

Even as he has talked repeatedly about the need for comprehensive changes, including in a televised address from the Oval Office, Bush has slid to the right on the issue. He deployed thousands of National Guard troops to help patrol parts of the border with Mexico and signed into law a bill to build a wall along about a third of the 2,100-mile frontier.

Now Bush appears poised to embrace a more punitive overhaul plan than he has talked about in the past. Under the proposal, written with GOP senators, undocumented workers could apply for three-year work visas, renewable at a cost of $3,500 each time. To become legal permanent residents, they would have to return to their home countries, apply for reentry at a U.S. embassy or consulate, and pay a $10,000 fine.

The proposal, which White House aides have called just one of many ideas the president will consider, has drawn strong rebukes from immigration activists and business groups. After details of the White House plan were leaked to the media last week, thousands of protesters in Los Angeles took to the streets.

"The administration's initial proposal is a step back, in our view, from the president's address to the nation last year," said Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

During his visit to Arizona, Bush attempted to highlight improvements in border security in recent years. He toured areas of the state's border with Mexico where illegal immigrants once could overwhelm the Border Patrol simply by rushing across. The deployment of National Guard troops, increases in the number of Border Patrol agents and improvements in technology have deterred such bold tactics, he said.

Last year, Border Patrol agents apprehended an average of 400 people a day attempting to sneak into the country in the Yuma sector of the border. Bush said that figure is now down to 140.

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