Bush Promotes Guest-Worker Plan, Immigration Policy

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President Bush pushes his plan for a guest-worker program during a visit to Arizona. His plan to bring millions of low-wage workers into the country has divided the Republican Party. He also discussed broader immigration issues and border security during his visit to Tucson, Ariz.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Immigration is the topic today in Arizona. President Bush is there talking about border security and wide-ranging measures he recently signed into law to boost enforcement.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We want to make it clear that when people violate immigration laws, they're going to be sent home, and they need to stay at home.

(Soundbite of applause)

BLOCK: The president is also promoting his plan for a guest worker program. He first sketched out his vision to bring in millions of legal, low-wage workers nearly two years ago. Since then, national debate on the issue has intensified and shifted, as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

Nothing reflects this shift more than the Minutemen. This ad hoc group of border-watchers staged a publicity stunt along the Arizona border last spring. Many observers waited for them to disappear; instead they've expanded, staking out parts of the Canadian border and day labor sites in several cities. They've even become part of popular culture, as in this recent story line on the prime-time show "Law & Order."

(Soundbite of "Law & Order"; theme music)

Mr. JESSE L. MARTIN: (As Detective Ed Green) Countrymen Border Watch of America. You belong to this organization?

Unidentified Man: Yes.

Mr. MARTIN: (As Detective Green) This isn't a white power thing, is it?

Unidentified Man: No, not at all. No, we're about border defense, a citizen auxiliary.

LUDDEN: Despite criticism that they're racists, the Minutemen have influenced public debate, says Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute.

Ms. DORIS MEISSNER (Migration Policy Institute): They have really been able to pick up on public concern and public anxiety about illegal immigration. And the difficulty of arguing for a package that includes ways for people to come legally to the country is that it actually is counterintuitive. I mean, it doesn't make sense on the face of it that you should have more immigration in order to stop illegal immigration.

LUDDEN: Though it sounds contradictory, Meissner feels strongly this is the case. She says the US economy demands some type of foreign worker program, and business interests are a major backer of the idea.

But since 9/11, a number of Republican congressmen have made national security their touchstone topic. One recently proposed legislation to build a wall along the entire US-Mexico border.

Ms. LESLIE SANCHEZ (Analyst): This is a tremendous balancing act, and I would say the president is the greatest voice of moderation on this issue.

LUDDEN: Leslie Sanchez is a Republican marketing analyst who used to work with the Congressional Border Caucus. She worries the GOP has been playing too much to the secure borders lobby, that some of the most heated rhetoric risks turning off Hispanics and other swing voters. But Sanchez also says President Bush may need to drop his effort to get Congress to pass comprehensive reform.

Ms. SANCHEZ: You're not going to get the support for a guest worker program, I think as it stands right now, among, you know, the House majority. So to break it down, they can use their political capital to move forward on something that is going to be a realistic solution.

LUDDEN: In other words, Sanchez says Congress could crack down on the border first then take up guest workers later.

Even in the Senate, more moderate on this issue than the House, there does seem a shift in that direction. Long-standing reform proposals would have illegal workers already in the US pay a fine then apply for legalization. But a more recent proposal would make undocumented immigrants first return to their home countries. Now that idea has been taken up by the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, who hopes to oversee any reform effort. And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had said he planned to put comprehensive immigration reform on Congress' agenda early next year. Today, he issued a press release that said in February, lawmakers will take up border security first. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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