Reaction to Bush's Speech on Immigration

President Bush chose to promote his proposals for border security and a guest worker program in Tucson, Ariz. The location was a propos: media stories about immigrants dying in the desert, drug busts, and minutemen are common in that area.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Tucson, Arizona, where President Bush delivered a speech on immigration yesterday, local media is awash in stories about border security, immigrants dying in the desert, drug busts and minutemen--a logical place, therefore, to get reaction to the president's proposal for border security and a guest worker program. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

While President Bush was inside the secure grounds of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base delivering his speech, drivers outside on Golf Links Road made plenty of noise as they drove by.

(Soundbite of traffic and vehicle horns honking)

ROBBINS: But they weren't honking in solidarity with the president. They were honking in support of about 100 people holding signs. `Bush is an idiot' and `No more deaths' were a couple of the milder sentiments. Protesters against the war in Iraq, some, but mostly protesters against the continuing influx of immigrants through the Arizona desert, despite a decade-long buildup of forces along the border.

Ms. KAT RODRIGUEZ (Derechos Humanos): The border communities feel we've been ignored, and we disagree on what the solutions are, but we agree that there's--not enough attention has been paid to what's happening here.

ROBBINS: Kat Rodriguez is with Derechos Humanos, or Human Rights, a pro-immigration coalition. Like the president, she supports some kind of guest worker program, but she also says what many anti-immigration activists say, that the president's promises for any reform won't amount to much.

Ms. RODRIGUEZ: Last year he gave this pretty speech in January and then he didn't, you know, return to the subject of immigration until August. So at this point, I don't usually--I don't have much hope that he's actually going to be intending to follow through with anything.

ROBBINS: Miles away in central Tucson, Pat Conners was too busy to listen to the president's speech, but like most Tucsonans, he's familiar with the immigration issue. Conners owns a restaurant which depends on immigrant help.

Mr. PAT CONNERS (Restaurant Owner): There are--the immigrant workers, they definitely fill needs.

ROBBINS: Conners supports the president's idea of matching willing workers with willing employers, as long as it doesn't mean more paperwork. But he says the continuing buildup of border security is actually making that prospect tougher because it's not just workers who are coming here anymore.

Mr. CONNERS: You know, they used to be able to go back and forth across the border fairly easily, and now the border's getting tighter, so instead of just going back and forth, they bring their whole family here. That's where I think you're starting to see a lot of the problems.

ROBBINS: You don't have to tell that to Marge Sinson, director of admissions at University Medical Center in Tucson. She says the hospital's cost to treat undocumented immigrants goes up 3 to $4 million every year. Sinson listened to the president propose a period of legal work after which immigrants must go home. She says that won't work.

Ms. MARGE SINSON (Director of Admissions, University Medical Center): People don't go home, so what's going to happen after the six years? I mean, my impression is they don't want to work here six years and then go back home permanently. So that's just, again, infusing more people into our system, meaning more people that need health care that are uninsured.

ROBBINS: But the president said he opposes amnesty, a term which Chris Harrison knows well.

Mr. CHRIS HARRISON (Teacher, Tucson High School): Amnesty, by definition, is a general pardon of a large population, a legal forgiveness.

ROBBINS: Chris Harrison teaches American government at Tucson High. Any guest worker program for those already here could be considered amnesty, but regardless of what you call it, Harrison wonders how the government will implement it.

Mr. HARRISON: So what is he going to do? How's he going to find them? Are they going to go check in every Wal-Mart and, you know, Kmart and demand green cards? And, I mean, think of the bureaucracy behind this, the paperwork, the money. It's going to be huge. Even the guest worker program's going to be huge.

ROBBINS: Harrison says he feels torn between enforcing existing laws against illegal immigration and the need for some sort of guest worker program. He thinks President Bush understands the dilemma, too, as the former governor of a border state, but the high school government teacher also understands politics.

Mr. HARRISON: I think that this is--this is a horrible thing to say, but I think he likes to talk about these kinds of things because it gets him off the Iraq hot seat.

ROBBINS: In fact, to many in Tucson, solving the Iraq problem may seem easier than coming up with a solution to the problem of immigration reform. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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