Bush Promotes Immigration Reform

President Bush

hide captionPresident Bush delivers his speech on immigration reform at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz., Nov. 28.

Reuters

In a speech Monday in Tucson, Ariz., President Bush began an effort to outline his ideas on immigration reform, an issue likely to arise in Congress in the coming months. Mr. Bush continues his campaign Tuesday with a stop in the border city of El Paso, Texas.

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President Bush has opened a fresh campaign to sell his ideas on immigration reform. The issue is likely to be debated in Congress in the coming months. Perhaps the biggest challenge Mr. Bush faces is winning over some lawmakers in his own party. The president continues his pitch today with a stop in the border city of El Paso, Texas. Yesterday he spoke at an Air Force base in Tucson, Arizona. It was his first public appearance since spending a private Thanksgiving weekend at his Texas ranch. NPR's David Greene is traveling with the president and reports from Phoenix.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Heading into the holiday, Mr. Bush was suffering through some of the lowest job approval ratings of his presidency. Coming out of the gates after Thanksgiving, he hasn't chosen the easiest issue--immigration reform. The president supports what he calls a temporary worker program. It would give undocumented immigrants the chance to apply for legal working permits for a fixed period. Then they would have to go home before coming back to the US. Some Republicans have signaled for months that they oppose the idea and view it as offering amnesty to lawbreakers. They have urged Mr. Bush to turn his attention to tightening the borders. At an Air Force base in Tucson, the president said, `Why choose?'

(Soundbite of speech)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The American people should not have to choose between a welcoming society and a lawful society. We can have both at the same time.

GREENE: To try to woo his Republican skeptics, he talked about their priorities first. He even stood under a banner that said `Protecting America's Borders,' and he was flanked by two imposing Customs and Border Patrol helicopters.

(Soundbite of speech)

Pres. BUSH: As a former governor, I know that enforcing the law and the border is especially important to the communities along the border. Illegal immigration puts pressure on our schools and hospitals. I understand that. I understand it strains the resources needed for law enforcement and emergency services.

GREENE: Mr. Bush then spent time talking about new technologies that can be used along the border, like surveillance drones and infrared cameras to monitor illegal activity. He said there's also a problem when it comes to non-Mexican immigrants. Mexicans crossing the border illegally can be sent home immediately in most cases, but because of a shortage of space at detention centers, Mr. Bush said, four of five non-Mexicans detained on the border are given a court date and let go, and most never show up for their hearing. The president called this practice catch-and-release, and he said it must end.

But he also touted what his administration has already done to beef up Border Patrol.

(Soundbite of speech)

Pres. BUSH: Since 2001, we've hired 1,900 new Border Patrol agents. I just signed a bill last month that will enable us to add another thousand Border Patrol agents. When we complete these hires, we will enlarge the Border Patrol by about 3,000 agents, from 9,500 the year I took office to 12,500 next year.

GREENE: These are the kinds of statistics Mr. Bush is hoping can win over some of his traditional allies so they support his temporary worker program, which he finally spoke about at the end of this speech.

(Soundbite of speech)

Pres. BUSH: This program would create a legal way to match willing foreign workers with willing American employers to fill jobs that Americans will not do. Workers would be able to register for legal status for a fixed period of time and then be required to go home. This program would help meet the demands of a growing economy, and it would allow honest workers to provide for their families while respecting the law.

GREENE: Before finishing, though, the president made sure to give his critics some more of what they wanted to hear.

(Soundbite of speech)

Pres. BUSH: The program that I propose would not create an automatic path to citizenship. It wouldn't provide for amnesty. I oppose amnesty. Rewarding those who have broken the law would encourage others to break the law and keep pressure on our border.

GREENE: This was the president's opening salvo. So far, the situation in Congress is unclear. In the Senate, there are some proposals similar to Mr. Bush's comprehensive package that are gaining momentum. In the House, many Republicans want to tighten the border before they even consider a temporary worker plan.

David Greene, NPR News, Phoenix.

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