Bush to Advocate 'Guest Worker' Program

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President Bush is set to speak about immigration issues Monday in a trip to Arizona. He advocates a "guest worker" policy as the best way to balance labor and border security concerns. Alex Chadwick talks to NPR senior Washington, D.C., editor Ron Elving about the challenges facing the president, and the growing Republican Party split over immigration.


From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, the trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

First, the lead. President Bush, after his six-day Thanksgiving break in Texas, is going to Tucson, Arizona. He's meeting with border agents there and then giving a speech about changing immigration laws. The president plans what he calls a temporary guest worker program. NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins us.

Ron, welcome back to the show.

The president's making immigration the first issue he talks about coming off this break rather than Iraq.

RON ELVING reporting:

Alex, it's a good time for a new focus and a new subject, and the president would like to build a little momentum on an issue that has long been close to his heart. He does care about this. He was a border state governor, and he was a champion of immigration back in the early '90s when he first got into candidate status. He and his brother, Jeb in Florida, taking much the same view of it. And also, it's part of his large political plan to realign the country politically between the parties and make Hispanics be more likely to vote Republican than Democratic. He, himself, has personally done very well among Hispanic voters for a Republican candidate, and this was going to be one of his absolute highest priorities as president back in 2001 up until the attacks of 9/11 changed everything.

CHADWICK: Mr. Bush does have a bill before Congress making it easier for people in this country to maintain a temporary guest worker status; for people illegally in this country, I'll note.

ELVING: Yes, that is correct. And under his proposal, undocumented workers, or, if you will, illegals, could apply for temporary work visas lasting as long as six years. And after that, they'd have to return to their home country, but there's no clear plan for exactly how they would be returned to their home country.

And at the same time, of course, the president does like to talk about enforcement. He doesn't want to just talk about what he does to give people status. He wants to be tough. He wants to talk about the borders and he's going to do that especially when he's in a place like he is today, just a few miles from the border. The photo op will down there with the front-line troops, the border agents and so on. And then in his speech, he'll move more into the comprehensive guiding philosophy dimension on immigration, particularly concentrating on the immigration of workers from the south, and that's where he gets into talking about the temporary worker status.

CHADWICK: But this bill really has not gone anywhere in Congress. And this is a Republican Congress; this is his Congress.

ELVING: Well, it is, but many of the leaders of this Republican Congress have their own ideas, and they would like to see the number of illegal workers in this country reduced. It's estimated it's something like 11 million--some people think it's even higher than that--and they think of the president's plan as--well, some of them call it `amnesty light,' and that's not a compliment. They're aimed more at getting that number down and they're aimed more at controlling immigration at the border.

CHADWICK: I'll note that this--the number of the illegals in the country is in dispute; I saw nine million in a Pew poll. But anyway, there are these other bills before Congress on the subject.

ELVING: Both of Arizona's senators are Republicans and they both have bills of their own. The better-known one, of course, is the senior senator, John McCain, and his bill--which is co-sponsored by Ted Kennedy, the Democrat from Massachusetts--was very highly receptive to immigrants and would allow many of the people who are now here illegally to stay and gain permanent status. The junior senator, Jon Kyl, also a Republican, has proposed temporary permits that require going back to your home country to apply for them.

CHADWICK: Does Mr. Bush have a preference?

ELVING: Well, neither one really is his preference. But tonight, you'll note he will be the featured guest at a fund-raiser for Jon Kyl, who is running for re-election next year.

CHADWICK: Thanks, Ron.

NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. His weekly column, Watching Washington, runs on our Web site, npr.org.

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