Bush Pitches Immigration Plan at College

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By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007

MIAMI, April 28 -- Miami Dade College has been trying to get a president to speak at graduation for nearly a decade, and this year President Bush accepted, using the commencement speech here Saturday to outline his vision of an assimilating America.

The White House saw it as an appropriate setting: With more than 160,000 students, Miami Dade bills itself as one of the largest institutions of higher education in the country, with a diverse student body that includes many children of immigrants. The flags of 64 countries, representing graduates' backgrounds, were carried in the ceremony's opening parade.

Administrators say the school also has a heavy slice of Cuban Americans, one of Bush's strongest constituencies, so there seemed to be little fear of the kind of hostile greeting the president might receive on other campuses. Only students, family and faculty were given tickets to the heavily guarded event.

Hundreds of protesters staged an "unwelcoming party" on the streets outside Miami Dade's Kendall campus, while inside the gymnasium, about 1,200 graduates and their relatives gave Bush a boisterous reception. He touted the merits of assimilation, extolled the role immigrants play in society -- and took a strong shot at the communist government in Cuba, just 90 miles away.

"In Havana and other Cuban cities, there are people just like you who are attending school, and dreaming of a better life," Bush said to warm applause. "Unfortunately those dreams are stifled by a cruel dictatorship that denies all freedom in the name of a dark and discredited ideology."

Bush also promoted his plan to overhaul immigration laws, repeating his mantra that all elements of the problem, including border security and how to handle illegal immigrants, must be addressed in one package if change is going to work. He did not specify how he plans to deal with people in the United States illegally, saying only that he wants to "resolve the status of those already here, without amnesty and without animosity."

Otherwise the president's 20-minute address steered largely away from policy, as Bush hailed Miami Dade graduates who have done well, along with a number of the immigrants graduating Saturday, such as Jimmy Zapata, an émigré from Colombia who served in the Marines during the invasion of Iraq.

An overhaul of immigration laws may well be Bush's last opportunity to make his mark on domestic policy in a big way, and his aides have been quietly negotiating with key senators in both parties on a bill that might be brought to the Senate floor as early as next month. Bush is trying to thread the needle between those who want tougher enforcement and those who want to create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who have been in the country for years.

"We are working to build consensus," Bush said in his weekly radio address, also devoted to immigration. "I am pleased that some of those who had doubts about comprehensive reform last year are now open to supporting it."

The commencement address was the first of three that Bush is scheduled to give this spring. He will also speak at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and at St. Vincent College, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania whose president is his former aide H. James Towey. Miami Dade is not the first two-year-college where Bush has spoken: He gave the commencement address last year at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.

Students and faculty seemed pleased to have Bush and to put politics aside. Kendall President Gregory W. Gray said nearly half of the graduates are the first in their family to get a college degree, and that was a bigger deal to most than politics. "There's a lot of people who have the anti-Bush focus, but most people are focused on celebrating," he said.

"It's not really a political campus," said Christopher A. Miles, the student government association president. "A lot of people were shocked" when they heard that the president was speaking, he added.

While Bush steered clear of politics in his address, he did mix in some politicking on his day trip to Florida, stopping at a private fundraiser for the Republican National Committee in Key Biscayne before the commencement. The event raised about $1 million, an RNC spokeswoman said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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