President Bush urged lawmakers Saturday to "summon the political courage" to support his top domestic priority, an immigration overhaul that is hanging by a thread in Congress.
"We have an obligation to solve problems that have been piling up for decades," Bush said in his weekly radio address. "The status quo is unacceptable."
A fragile bipartisan compromise on immigration known as the "grand bargain" is due to come back before the Senate as early as next week. After critics sidelined the bill two weeks ago, it is being considered under an agreement to allow votes on a limited number of amendments from both Democrats and Republicans.
The measure would tighten borders and workplace enforcement, create a new guest worker program and provide pathways to legal status for most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.
With 19 months left in Bush's presidency, some see immigration reform as his last hope for a major domestic achievement, and Bush himself has made clear it is his main legislative priority for the year. The Democrats who won control of Congress in November also want to demonstrate that they can produce results on a problem of concern to many Americans.
But the issue splits the Republican Party.
Many business groups, hungry to fill low-wage jobs, support the bill, while many social conservatives have pronounced it unacceptable, calling it amnesty for illegal immigrants.
So the legislation's backers — including Bush — fear that any radical changes to the compromise would derail its already tenuous chances of getting through Congress. The House has yet to draft its version.
As an incentive for those who are skeptical about the government's ability to carry out the legislation's enforcement provisions, Bush publicly signed onto a plan for $4.4 billion in immediate funding for border security and workplace enforcement. The accelerated funding would be paid back by new fines and fees for illegal immigrants in the bill.
In his radio address, Bush stressed the bill's many enforcement provisions, which must be in place before the temporary worker program or new route for legal status becomes operational.
Dire consequences for illegally crossing
He also noted that, under the bill, people caught crossing the border illegally will be permanently barred from returning to the United States on a work or tourist visa, those known to have taken part in illegal gang activity can be denied admission and aliens who are dangerous criminals can be detained until another country accepts them.
"I understand that many Americans have concerns about immigration reform _ especially about the federal government's ability to secure the border," Bush said. "So this bill puts the enforcement tools in place first."
But the president also argued that stepped-up enforcement will not by itself solve the problem of illegal immigration. Taking "pressure off the border" with a guest worker program also is crucial, he said.
"I urge members of both parties to support comprehensive immigration reform," Bush said.