Bush's Guest-Worker Program Faces Uphill Battle

Senators show little enthusiasm for President Bush's guest-worker program at a hearing Tuesday. But the president reiterates that he still hopes to establish an immigration program that he says would meet the needs of employers and encourage legal immigration to the United States.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, President Bush signed a bill that increases funding for border security. He also used the occasion to renew his call for a temporary guest worker program. He said the millions of Mexicans here illegally are coming to work and feed their families.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: 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.'

BLOCK: There are several bills in Congress that would set up a temporary worker program, but immigration reform has been repeatedly pushed off Congress' agenda. And at a Capitol Hill hearing today, senators suggested it's likely to slip again this year. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

In recent months, there's been a groundswell of support in Congress for addressing border security first before passing any guest worker program. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says that's his priority, and 81 members of Congress have signed a petition endorsing the idea. But at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said it isn't so simple.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): The fact of the matter is that ending illegal immigration is going to require three pillars; it's a three-legged stool. It requires tough enforcement at the border, tough interior enforcement and a temporary worker program to deal with a very real draw that the need for labor is exerting on migration across the border.

LUDDEN: In fact, Chertoff said putting a temporary worker program in place first would make it a lot easier to secure the border with Mexico.

The administration has also been criticized for not supporting some way for guest workers to become US citizens. Immigrant advocates say that would keep many here already from signing onto a program. But Labor Secretary Elaine Chao stuck to the position under repeated questioning.

Secretary ELAINE CHAO (Department of Labor): Under the president's principles, those who are currently here illegally would have to pay an up-front fine in order to receive a temporary worker visa. They would not be granted amnesty, and they would not be rewarded with an automatic path to citizenship.

LUDDEN: If that's the case, Senator Tom Coburn wanted to know what happens when the worker program ends after, say, six years but an immigrant refuses to go home. Secretary Chertoff tried to reassure him.

Sec. CHERTOFF: By then, we've tracked you, we know where you are, we have your address. And also, if the program is designed properly, money that, for example, is set aside for retirement winds up only being available to the migrant if the migrant goes back home.

LUDDEN: But without such a comprehensive program, Chertoff said Homeland Security will continue to focus on the border. The bill the president signed today provides money for more border agents, more high-tech equipment to spot migrants and more detention space to hold them. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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