Immigration Reform Tops Agenda in Washington

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President Bush and the U.S. Senate turn their attention to immigration as the president helps to swear in new citizens while a Senate committee writes a bill to control the flow of undocumented workers. The full Senate is expected to debate the issue for the next two weeks.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. In Washington today, the president and a key Senate committee turned their attention to rewriting the nation's immigration laws. The issue is fraught with emotion, and complicated by the politics of not one, but two election years. This year's congressional races, and the presidential contest of 2008. Some lawmakers simply want to secure the borders, others want undocumented workers to have a chance to stay in the U.S. legally. Today, President Bush called for civility in the debate on Capitol Hill, even as massive demonstrations around the country raised the tension level.

We begin our coverage with NPR's David Greene at the White House.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

The White House always looks for that perfect venue for a speech. Today, with immigration topping his agenda, the president came to a naturalization ceremony in Washington. His red tie matched perfectly the backdrop at the event, which featured the Statue of Liberty.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Nobody benefits when the illegal immigrants live in the shadows of society. Everyone suffers when people seeking to provide for their families are left at the mercy of criminals, or stuffed in the back of 18-wheelers, or abandoned in the desert to die. America needs comprehensive immigration reform.

GREENE: But he was also quick to add:

President BUSH: Completing a comprehensive bill is not going to be easy.

GREENE: You can say that again. This president's been fighting for immigration legislation for nearly five years. In 2001, Mexican President Vicente Fox came to Washington and pressed Mr. Bush to allow undocumented immigrants a crack at legal working status in the U.S. Mr. Bush was open to the idea.

President BUSH: Workers should be able to register for legal status on a temporary basis. If they decide to apply for citizenship, they would have to get in line.

GREENE: Whether undocumented immigrants could apply for citizenship is just one of many issues dividing lawmakers. On one side are those who want to make it a felony to be in the country illegally and who want to build a 700-mile fence on the Mexican border to back it up. On the other side are those who want not just a guest worker program, but a step-by-step path for illegal aliens to become citizens. And there are plenty of ideas in the middle. The president left many of the details to Congress and sought to take the high road.

President BUSH: No one should pretend that immigrants are threats to American identity, because immigrants have shaped America's identity.

GREENE: He closed his event by speaking to the 30 citizens who had just taken the oath. Even as he spoke, on Capitol Hill senators on the Judiciary Committee were scrambling to meet a deadline set by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. In this election year, the leader is eager to get beyond an issue that divides his party, and he vowed that if the Judiciary Committee did not have some kind of compromise legislation ready by tonight, he'd introduce his own bill tomorrow. It would toughen border enforcement and drop the current guest worker program the president defends. California Democrat Dianne Feinstein said she didn't appreciate the pressure from Frist.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): This is a huge and controversial issue, and to work on a forced march basis so that we get so fatigued we don't know what we do is really not something that I think is the best interest of the United States Senate. We are meant, whether we like it or not, to be a deliberative body.

GREENE: Not only is the issue controversial, but it's captured the attention of the public. In recent days, hundreds of thousands have marched in cities around the country. And today a contingent of advocates was literally present at the doorstep of the Congress.

David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

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