Telling Americans and Congress it was time to “make it clear where I stand and where I want to lead our country on this vital issue,” President Bush on Monday called for diverting 6,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border, creating a new temporary worker program with high-tech ID cards, and finding a “rational middle ground” that allows many longtime illegal immigrants to seek citizenship.
His televised prime-time address, which ran just short of 17 minutes, came as the president works to quell criticism from conservatives that he is too soft on illegal immigration. At the same time, Bush hopes to improve the prospects for much of a 616-page Senate bill that would expand legal immigration and close the gap with House leaders who want a more restrictive, enforcement-focused bill. The debate has led to weeks of street protests, hurt the president’s approval ratings and split the Republican Party in an election year.
“Tonight I want to speak directly to the members of the House and the Senate,” the president said. “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.
“We cannot build a unified country by inciting people to anger, or playing on anyone’s fear or exploiting the issue of immigration for political gain,” he said. “Every human being has value no matter what their citizenship papers say.”
Reaction to the president’s proposals, though, ranged from lukewarm to dismissive.
“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,” said House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
Bush said the National Guard deployment beginning next month would be temporary _ until as many new U.S. Border Patrol agents can be hired and trained, likely by the end of 2008.
The president also predicted that expanding programs for guest workers from other countries _ as many business leaders favor, and as the Senate is considering and the House earlier rejected _ would reduce illegal border-crossing attempts by giving a safer option to those who want to come to the country to work. Many critics of illegal immigrations disagree with that notion.
And he challenged the criticism that it would be amnesty to allow longtime illegal immigrants with families, homes, jobs and no criminal records to apply for citizenship if they paid fines and could speak English.
“There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant and a program of mass deportation,” he said. “It is a way for those who have broken the law to pay their debt to society.”
During his speech, the president said the deployment would not amount to a militarization of the border, a tender subject for Mexican President Vicente Fox, an ally and important trading partner, and for governors, who control National Guard units.
The president is not calling for federalizing the National Guard. His plan would keep troops under the control of governors, who would have the option to decline using the National Guard, but would be reimbursed by the federal government if they agreed. It was unclear which border states would get how many troops; White House advisers said border-state governors would make requests individually and that details would be worked out over the next several weeks.
Bush’s National Guard deployment plan attempts to work around the fact that the National Guard is stretched thin from fighting in Iraq and is preparing for a new hurricane season by sending troops in shifts of just two to three weeks each, the period of time they typically spend each year updating their training.
Ironically, it is a plan similar to one proposed more than a decade ago, during a previous wave of immigration worries, by one of the president’s loudest and most liberal critics, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., called the president’s proposal to use Guard troops the “shot in the arm we need to strengthen our borders and protect our families.” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Congress “will have to legislate carefully to circumscribe the Guards’ duties so we don’t get them involved in law enforcement or activities which are inappropriate.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Bush “got off to a good start tonight, but now he must stand up to right-wing members of his own party who are working to block Senate action. He should denounce the misguided approach of House Republicans, and exercise his leadership to get the job done.”
With roughly 450,000 National Guard troops in force, the administration acknowledged the president’s plan could scroll as many as 156,000 men and women in and out of border duty. Critics said that solution called to question whether the National Guard could actually serve any useful purpose.
White House advisers insisted during a briefing earlier in the day that they could, and that Guard troops often ran shorter missions than that. Homeland security officials said the National Guard would not be apprehending or detaining illegal border crossers; rather, they would be assigned to take over administrative tasks, or surveillance, so that more Border Patrol officers could be sent to the front lines.
The administration, which had floated the idea of National Guard deployment last week and has been struggling to win conservative Republicans over to the president’s position on immigration, was sensitive to speculation about motivations for the plan.
“There’s a lot of speculation that the president is doing this simply to mollify the Republican base,” said Press Secretary Tony Snow. “This is an act of leadership. If he wanted simply to give a speech to mollify any given voting bloc it would be a much different kind of speech. He understands if you don’t do it all at once, things fall apart.”
A Newsweek poll last week found just 25 percent of Americans approve of the way he is handling immigration, while 61 percent said they disapprove and 14 percent were unsure.
“To some degree, it was born out of necessity,” Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist in California, said of the speech.
“Somehow the White House has let the immigration debate get framed as an either-or decision between tougher border controls and a guest-worker and citizenship program,” Schnur said. “This speech can remind people he is serious about the border before he re-engages in the broader discussions.”
In the Republican-led Congress, the House has passed an enforcement-only immigration bill that creates felony provisions, extends a fence along the border and skips guest-worker language or instructions about what to do with an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in this country.
The Senate, which resumed debate on its immigration bill Monday, is divided about how to proceed.
“If we don’t control our borders, our security and literally our way of life may be subjected to a huge tsunami of humanity,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said Monday.
Dan Stein, president Federation for American Immigration Reform, said that if the president is serious about dealing with illegal immigration as a crisis, he must embrace the House’s enforcement-only plan and oppose any program that could be described as an amnesty.
“If all he is planning to do is send a few weekend soldiers down to the border for a few months, the American public will see it for what it is: an elaborate and expensive photo op,” Stein concluded.