RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
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President Bush addressed the nation last night on the issue of illegal immigration. Speaking to those who want tighter enforcement of the law, the president said he'd send up to 6,000 National Guard Troops to back up the Border Patrol. There are about 400,000 people in the Guard Force. The president highlighted the immigration topic as the U.S. Senate begins taking up the issue. There have been massive pro-immigration protests across the country in recent months, and there have also been calls for a crackdown on all illegal immigrants.
NPR's White House Correspondent Don Gonyea reports.
DON GONYEA reporting:
The president tried to elevate the immigration issue to a level of importance similar to the war in Iraq, a more common subject for a primetime speech from the Oval Office. He talked of sending in the Guard to signal his commitment to stiffer border security. Last night, Mr. Bush said the U.S. is not in control of its borders. But he also made clear he still considers it unrealistic to talk about deporting millions now in the country illegally, and he stressed that there is a middle ground between that and offering amnesty to illegal immigrants.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're a nation of laws, and we must enforce our laws. We're also a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition which has strengthened our country in so many ways. These are not contradictory goals. America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time.
GONYEA: The president said more border patrols need to be added and proposed hiring thousands more agents over the next two years, but also said stricter border controls can't wait. So he said National Guard troops will begin doing two-week rotations along the southern border. He said Guard troops won't be used as law enforcement officers, and he responded to criticism that the deployment would cut into training time for troops and that the Guard is already stretched to the limit.
President BUSH: It is important for Americans to know that we have enough Guard forces to win the war on terror, to respond to natural disasters, and to help secure our border.
GONYEA: The president also spoke of high-tech monitoring devices along the border, including unmanned planes. But he also said he's assured Mexico this will not be a militarization of the border. He again called for a guest worker program, allowing immigrants to enter the U.S. and work legally.
President BUSH: This program would match willing foreign workers with willing American employers for jobs Americans are not doing. Every worker who applies for the program would be required to pass criminal background checks. And temporary workers must return to their home country at the conclusion of their stay.
GONYEA: And the president said he'd like to see a way for people who've been in the country for a long time and put down roots to be able to get in line for citizenship. It's not amnesty, he said, because they'd have to pay taxes and penalties. But he did not say exactly how eligibility would be determined.
In a Democratic response, Illinois Senator Richard Durbin said the president needs to do more to make sure conservatives, who are pushing a hard line on immigration, don't hold sway in Congress.
Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): We know where the House Republicans stand: they want to criminalize undocumented immigrants and the nurses, volunteers, and people of faith who help them. The president told us tonight that he supports tough, fair comprehensive reform. Now he must lead. The president has the power to call up the National Guard to patrol our border, but now he must summon the power to lead his own Republican forces in Congress to support a bipartisan, comprehensive, immigration reform.
GONYEA: As for the president, as he often does, he included in his speech the story of one person. This anecdote, coming at the very end of last night's remarks, linked the immigration issue and the Iraq War. It was the story of an immigrant named Guadalupe Denogean.
President BUSH: He spent his summers picking crops with his family. And then he volunteered for the United States Marine Corps as soon as he was able. During the liberation of Iraq, Master Gunner - Master Gunnery Sgt. Denogean was seriously injured. And when I asked if he had any request, he made two: a promotion for the corporal who helped rescue him and the chance to become an American citizen.
GONYEA: Anticipating difficult debate in Congress and the possible bruising fight between a House and Senate trying to reconcile what may be two very different bills. The president urged members to conduct the debate in a respectful tone. It remains to be seen if his speech last night has any impact because of Mr. Bush's own weakened political state and low public approval ratings for his handling of the war and domestic issues, including immigration.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.
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