President Bush said Friday the United States believes it is important to enforce laws protecting borders and told the leaders of Mexico and Canada that was crucial to keeping prosperity alive.
He also reiterated strong support for a “guest worker” program that would allow undocumented immigrants already in the United States to remain in the country to fill low-paying jobs that Americans won’t take.
Bush declined to say whether he would veto legislation that did not contain such a provision.
“I want a comprehensive bill,” Bush said at a joint news conference with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The three-way meeting in the Mexican resort city of Cancun came as the U.S. Congress is embroiled in an intense debate over immigration legislation.
Bush also defended a new U.S. requirement, to take effect Dec. 31, 2007, requiring all American and Canadian travelers to carry a passport when they cross into each other’s country.
Harper said he had expressed Canada’s concern to Bush over the new restriction.
Bush said that “Congress passed the law and I intend to enforce the law.” He said he believes that if properly implemented the program “will facilitate travel and facilitate trade, not hinder travel and trade. I think we can be wise about the use of technologies.”
The three leaders held a press conference before wrapping up the two-day summit over lunch. Bush was to later head to his Texas ranch for the weekend.
The meetings were aimed at strengthening North American relations and building on the trade increases that have resulted from the 12-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement. Canada and Mexico are the United States’ top two trading partners.
Lumber dispute with Canada
Harper, in his first meeting with Bush since taking office two months ago with a promise to strengthen U.S. ties, on Thursday spoke glowingly of the countries’ close relationship, but made it clear there is a serious sticking point. He said he was taking Bush “at face value” when the U.S. president said he wanted to resolve a long-standing dispute over U.S. tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber.
“I just reminded the president that Canada’s position on this is very clear, and if we don’t see a resolution, Canada is certainly going to continue to pursue all its legal options, as well as enhanced support for our industry, through this battle,” Harper warned.
For the most part in their public appearances, the leaders spoke about how they are working together. That was especially the case on immigration, with Bush and Fox clearly trying to sway a divided Congress to create a program to allow illegal immigrants — an estimated 6 million of them from Mexico — to work temporarily in the United States in low-paying jobs.
The Senate this week is debating an immigration bill that includes a guest worker program. The version that passed the Republican-controlled House late last year took a get-tough approach — calling for more fences along the border and tougher penalties for those who sneak across — and did not create the guest worker program that Bush wants.
But Bush said he’s optimistic that disagreements on Capitol Hill can be worked out.
“I told the president that I am committed to having a comprehensive immigration bill on my desk,” Bush said. “And by comprehensive, I mean not only border security — a bill that has border security in it, a bill that has interior enforcement in it — but a bill that has a worker permit program in it.”
The issue has united Bush and Fox, whose friendship dates back to Bush’s time as Texas governor but was strained over Fox’s objections to the war in Iraq. But immigration has divided Bush’s Republican party, with business interests who want cheap labor battling conservatives who want a tough policy against illegal immigrants.
At a news conference Thursday in Washington, a dozen House Republicans blasted the Senate bill. Bush was not immune to their criticism.
“I don’t think he’s concerned about alienating voters, he’s not running for re-election,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado. “I wish he’d think about the party and of course I also wish he’d think about the country.”