Bush Renews Call for Changes on Immigration

President Bush visits a new border-control station in Yuma, Ariz. He says placing troops on the border has helped restore order, but called on Congress to overhaul the country's immigration policy.

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You get a clue to the politics of immigration when you check the itinerary of President Bush. He went to the Arizona desert yesterday to highlight efforts to stop illegal immigration. The president can count on wide political support for tougher border enforcement.

What is tougher is finding a solution for millions of illegal immigrants already here. Even as the president visited the border, the administration was pressing its latest answer to the new Democratic Congress.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN: It was a hot windy day in the Yuma Desert as President Bush with his shirtsleeves rolled up and helicopters hovering overhead watched a rig plow huge holes in the ground. Soon the holes will be filled with steel-winged fencing post that make it nearly impossible for illegal immigrants to tunnel underneath.

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KAHN: Mr. Bush also oversaw inaugural ceremonies for a brand new border patrol station in Yuma. On a makeshift stage in the parking lot, the president told a few hundred invited guests that an influx of agents here plus 600 National Guard troops has made this once busy illegal corridor a lot quieter.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But manpower can't do it alone. In other words, there has to be some infrastructure along the border to be able to let these agents do their job.

KAHN: And he says his administration has done its part to build that infrastructure by funding the needed fencing, lighting and high-tech equipment.

President BUSH: The American people have no earthly idea what's going on down here. One of the reasons I've come is to let you know, let the taxpayers know, the good folks down here are making progress.

KAHN: Proof of that progress, Mr. Bush says, is the drop in the numbers of illegal crossings here at the southwest border. In Yuma, that decline is even more significant. But Mr. Bush says there also needs to be tougher employer sanctions and a temporary worker program in place to stop illegal immigration.

President BUSH: People are coming to work. And many of them have no lawful way to come to America, and so they're sneaking in.

KAHN: While short on specifics, the president insisted that the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country would not get amnesty. Last week, the administration and key Republicans released a draft or a form proposal. Among the provisions was a guest worker program with three-year special visas.

Illegal immigrants would have to pay $3,500 each time they signed up for the renewable visas. If the immigrants wanted to become permanent residents, they would have to leave the country and pay a $10,000 fine to get back in.

Mr. FRANK SHARRY (National Immigration Forum): That's just ridiculous.

KAHN: Frank Sharry is with the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant rights group.

Mr. SHARRY: But I think if we're going to have a practical solution for the people here, you want them to come out of the shadows, you do want them to pay restitution. But you also want them to get on a path to eventual citizenship so that they can, you know, step up and fulfill the rights and obligations of being an American citizen.

KAHN: Sharry and other immigrant advocates support a less punitive House bill co-authored by Arizona Republican Congressman Jeff Flake. Flake says his bill is harsh enough.

Representative JEFF FLAKE (Republican, Arizona): You go to the back of the line, you learn English, I mean, there are plenty of penalties. And the key is to get people out of the shadows, and that's what's we're trying to do.

KAHN: President Bush says he's hoping for a civil debate, and that Congress delivers a bill before summer. All sides already agree on one thing - if immigration reform isn't passed this year, it certainly won't happen during next year's presidential election.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Yuma, Arizona.

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