President Bush sought support Tuesday for his guest worker plan for foreigners, hoping to win over skeptical conservatives with a pledge to clamp down on illegal immigration — one of a growing number of issues causing friction between the White House and fellow Republicans.
Bush and his advisers are caught between their business supporters, who believe the economy needs foreign workers, and conservatives whose priority is to get tough on illegal immigration. The right flank of the GOP also is upset about federal spending and Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.
“As we improve and expand our efforts to secure our borders, we must also recognize that that enforcement cannot work unless it is part of a larger comprehensive immigration reform program,” Bush said. “If an employer has a job that no American is willing to take, we need to find a way to fill that demand by matching willing employers with willing workers from foreign countries on a temporary and legal basis.”
Bush made the pitch for his immigration policy at the White House just before signing the $32 billion homeland security bill, which includes large increases for patrolling borders but fewer grants for local emergency first responders and a freeze in transit security funding.
Proposed improvements to border patrol
Bush said the bill includes $82 million to improve and expand Border Patrol stations and $70 million to install and improve fencing, lighting, vehicle barriers and roads. He said it provides $3.7 billion for immigration and customs enforcement so illegal immigrants can be found and returned home. It also will fund the hiring of 100 new immigration enforcement agents and 250 criminal investigators and add 2,000 new beds to detention facilities.
“This will allow us to hold more non-Mexican illegal immigrants while we process them through a program we call ‘expedited removal,”’ Bush said. “Putting more of these non-Mexican illegal immigrants through expedited removal is crucial to ending the problem of catch-and-release.”
The “catch and release” policy has allowed tens of thousands of non-Mexican illegal aliens to disappear within the United States.
Earlier in the day, administration officials appeared on Capitol Hill to promote Bush’s guest worker plan, saying action is needed beyond improving border patrols to stem the flow of illegal immigrants.
“We’re going to need more than just brute enforcement,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We’re going to need a temporary worker program as well.”
Helping immigrants and the economy
Bush last year introduced a plan that would allow undocumented workers to get three-year work visas. They could extend that for another three years, but would then have to return to their home countries for a year to apply for a new work permit. The president called his proposal a necessity for an economy that needs employees for jobs many Americans don’t want.
GOP leaders in both the House and Senate have suggested that Congress should first take up the enforcement issue, putting off debate on the more complex issues of undocumented workers and the demand for low-skilled labor in this country.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., said the administration should be concerned about securing the borders before moving forward on a guest worker plan.
“The administration’s continued kowtowing to big business defies political sense,” said Tancredo, who has been at loggerheads with the White House over the proposal and whose calls for tough immigration measures have drawn the ire of Hispanic groups.
“Slowly, the president’s team is coming to realize that they have a political revolt on their hands. And, it’s no longer just the conservative base that’s angry about illegal immigration — there’s widespread discontent about our broken system from coast to coast, from left to right.”
11 million illegal immigrants
But Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said that with reports of larger numbers of illegal immigrants — often estimated around 11 million — than legal immigrants, his panel would address comprehensive change. “It is a matter of very, very substantial urgency,” he said.
Several members of the committee are sponsoring legislation that, in addition to strengthening border security and workplace enforcement, would set up guest worker programs.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has a bill that would provide visas for up to six years, after which the worker must either leave the country or be in the pipeline for a green card.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Bush’s guest worker program offers no path toward legalization of immigrants and will create a permanent underclass.
“We need a plan that will allow immigrants who are already here to earn their residency through hard work and that will create legal channels for immigrant workers necessary for our economic growth to enter in the future,” Reid said.
Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., have a rival bill that would require illegal aliens to return to their home country to apply for the temporary worker program.