WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush, trying to build support for a major overhaul of the nation's tattered immigration laws, said Monday night he would order as many as 6,000 National Guard troops to secure the U.S. border with Mexico and urged Congress to give millions of illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship.
"We do not yet have full control of the border and I am determined to change that," the president said in a 17-minute prime-time address from the Oval Office.
Bush gave strong support to a plan that would give many of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States an eventual path to possible citizenship — a move derided by some conservatives in his own Republican Party as amnesty. He rejected that term.
"It is neither wise nor realistic to round up millions of people, many with deep roots in the United States and send them across the border," he said. "There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant and a program of mass deportation."
The Guard troops would mostly serve two-week stints before rotating out of the assignment, so keeping the force level at 6,000 over the course of a year could require up to 156,000 troops.
Still, Bush insisted, "The United States is not going to militarize the southern border."
The White House wouldn't say how much the deployments would cost, but said the troops would paid for as part of $1.9 billion being requested from Congress to supplement border enforcement this year.
The president timed his speech hours after the Senate began intense debate on an immigration bill that has been getting increasing attention in a year when all House seats and one-third of Senate seats are up for election. The rare televised, prime-time Oval Office address signified the high stakes for Bush, who has been asking for an immigration overhaul since his the 2000 campaign.
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., indicated Bush may have some trouble getting some conservatives on board with his overall plan.
"While I appreciate the president's willingness to tackle big problems, I have real concerns about moving forward with a guest worker program or a plan to address those currently in the United States illegally until we have adequately addressed our serious border security problems," Blunt said.
Bush said the National Guard troops would fill in temporarily while the nation's Border Patrol force is expanded. He asked Congress to add 6,000 more Border Patrol agents by the end of his presidency and to add 6,700 more beds so illegal immigrants can be detained while waiting for hearings to determine that they can be sent home.
For many years, the government has not had enough detention space to hold illegal immigrants, so they were released into society and most did not return for their court date. "This practice, called catch and release, is unacceptable and we will end it," Bush said
The Border Patrol would remain responsible for catching and detaining illegal immigrants, with National Guard troops providing intelligence gathering, surveillance and other administrative support. Yet the National Guard troops would still be armed and authorized to use force to protect themselves, said Bush homeland security adviser Fran Townsend.
They are to come from the four border states — California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas — but those states' governors may also seek Guard troops from other states. Reaction was mixed among the nation's governors.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said troops might provide short-term relief but he did not believe border protection was an appropriate role for the National Guard. California has thousands of Guard troops in Iraq and might need them in case of earthquakes, floods or other emergencies, he said.
"So if you have 6,000 in Iraq and send another 6,000 to the border, what do we have left?" Schwarzenegger asked.
But another Republican border state governor, Rick Perry of Texas, said he was glad the administration had decided the Guard had a role to play along the border. "We have the ability to multitask," Perry said.
The White House hopes deployments to the border will begin in early June.
Many congressional Republicans said they supported Bush's plan to use National Guard troops at the border. But he ran into criticism from Democrats and some other Republicans.
"Democrats are willing to support any reasonable plan that will secure our borders, including deploying National Guard troops," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "But Americans don't want a plan that's been cobbled together to win political favor. This cannot turn into another long-term military deployment with no clear plan."
Bush said the nation has more than doubled the size of the Border Patrol during his presidency and has sent home about 6 million people entering the United States illegally. Still, he said, that has not been enough.
"For decades, the United States has not been in complete control of its borders," the president said. "As a result, many who want to work in our economy have been able to sneak across our border, and millions have stayed."
He called for enactment of a guest worker program to allow immigrants to take low-paying jobs, and he said employers must be held to account for hiring illegal immigrants. He said that a tamperproof identification card for workers would "leave employers with no excuse" for violating the law.
And he stressed that those who want to earn citizenship should have to assimilate into society, learn English, pay fines for breaking the law and pay back taxes.
"What I have just described is not amnesty," Bush said. "It is a way for those who have broken the law to pay their debt to society and demonstrate the character that makes a good citizen."
The president's call for tougher border security is part of a broader plan to overhaul a system that he has described as inhumane, with desperate foreigners risking their lives for a chance to earn U.S. wages. The issue raises emotions on all sides, with many Americans and influential conservatives in Congress angry that foreigners are taking jobs and draining resources across the country.
The White House hopes that the tougher security will be enough to get House conservatives to support the work permits and citizenship proposals that they have been opposed to. A bill that passed the House last year ignored those ideas and instead would increase criminal penalties for illegal immigrants and construct 700 miles of fencing.
Bush addressed some of his comments to lawmakers, calling on the Senate to act by the end of the month so a compromise can be reached with the House. "I want to speak directly to Members of the House and the Senate: An immigration reform bill needs to be comprehensive, because all elements of this problem must be addressed together, or none of them will be solved at all."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.