President Bush, seeking to deal with what critics inside and outside of Washington say is out-of-control illegal immigration, yesterday promised tough action to secure the country's borders as administration officials outlined a plan to allow illegal immigrants living here and foreign workers to work in the United States for as long as six years before returning home permanently.
At the White House, where he signed a bill financing the Department of Homeland Security, Bush sought to strike a tough but compassionate tone in addressing an issue that is causing havoc in the Southwest, tensions with Mexico and deep rifts within the Republican Party.
"You see, we got people sneaking into our country to work. They want to provide for their families. Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River," Bush said. "People are coming to put food on the table. But because there is no legal way for them to do so, through a temporary worker program, they're putting pressure on our border."
The measure signed by Bush deals with the issue, in part, by adding Border Patrol agents and new technology along the border. It will also create more beds at detention facilities and expedite the removal of illegal immigrants caught in the country.
Earlier in the day, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff provided the Senate Judiciary Committee with the most detailed explanation to date of the administration's plan to create a temporary worker program.
Under the plan, foreign workers -- including the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States -- could apply to work for three years. Each would be matched with an employer, provided with a biometric identification card to help track his or her whereabouts, and released in the country.
But immigrants who are already living in the United States illegally would have to pay an unspecified fine before they could enter the program. They would also be dispatched to the back of the employment line, behind foreign nationals who followed the rules.
Officials said the fine would preclude any amnesty for illegal immigrants, an anathema to conservative groups and politicians. "To the people of Oklahoma, amnesty is a horrible word," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said.
The workers could travel freely between the United States and their places of origin, as long as they remained employed and broke no laws. But neither they nor the foreign workers who come to the United States under the program would be eligible to apply for permanent legal status when their time in the program expires, Chao said.
The administration's proposal is an attempt to bridge the yawning divide over the issue within Bush's own party. Business executives -- especially those in construction, hospitality, agriculture and health care -- are concerned that tough anti-immigration measures would exacerbate the shortage of workers in their fields. But many conservatives view giving amnesty to illegal immigrants as rewarding law-breaking.
Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) have proposed a guest worker program that would force 10 million illegal immigrants to go home before they could apply to work. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) have proposed a program that would allow law-abiding foreign workers to apply for permanent residency after working for several years.
With his proposal yesterday, Bush tried to bridge the two camps. "It makes sense to have a rational plan that says, you can come and work on a temporary basis if an employer can't find an American to do the job," he said. "It makes sense for the employer, it makes sense for the worker, and it makes sense for those good people trying to enforce our border."
But on Capitol Hill, senators wasted no time in grilling administration officials. How can the government hope to track workers when the southern border is porous? And how can senators be assured that workers would be forced home after six years when the government has failed to enforce the current immigration laws on millions of workers?
Chao said the identification cards would help. Chertoff said his agency would put more effort into border patrol and interior enforcement, along with the temporary worker program, as part of a "three-legged" approach to reform.
Without a guest worker program, Chertoff said, illegal immigration would become a worse problem. In 2005 alone, Border Patrol agents apprehended have more than a million people, mostly in Texas and California, as well as in New Mexico and Arizona, whose governors recently declared a state of emergency in counties along the Mexican border.
"This is a system in desperate need," Chertoff said of current immigration rules, "and people are rightly upset and distressed."