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Bush Pledges Border Control

Times Staff Writers

With increasingly fierce debates over border security exposing divisions in the Republican Party, President Bush on Monday endorsed a policy of strict border enforcement.

His comments during appearances in California and Arizona were an apparent response to some state officials and conservatives in his own party who say the administration has failed to adequately address human trafficking from Mexico into the United States.

Officials in the two states have struggled to balance the need to guard against waves of illegal immigration with the demands of agriculture and other industries that rely on migrant labor. They also have been mindful of the growing importance of Latino voters, many of whom are sympathetic to looser enforcement.

The president did not mention the emergency declarations, signed two weeks ago by Democratic Govs. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Bill Richardson of New Mexico, that require the federal government to spend millions more combating human trafficking and, at the same time, paint the Bush administration as weak on immigration. Nor did he mention his own proposal for addressing the immigration crisis, one that is strongly opposed by many conservatives within his party: a guest worker program that would allow millions of undocumented immigrants to work and live in the United States legally.

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Instead, Bush offered language apparently designed to appease the growing chorus of critics -- assuring audiences in El Mirage, Ariz., and Rancho Cucamonga, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, that as a former governor of Texas he was no newcomer to border-state concerns. He did not, as he had in the past, discuss the benefits of immigration or the value that immigrants bring to the U.S. economy.

“I understand the challenges of enforcing our border,” Bush told the audience at the James L. Brulte Senior Center in Rancho Cucamonga.

“My pledge to the people of California is that the federal government will work closely with the state government and local government to provide assets, manpower [and] detention space to do our duty -- and that is to make sure this border of ours is secure.”

Speaking earlier in Napolitano’s home state, Bush assured retirees at the Pueblo El Mirage RV Resort and Country Club that he understood that the flow of illegal immigrants was “putting a strain on your resources.”

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“I don’t know if you know this or not, but hundreds of thousands of people have been detained trying to illegally cross into Arizona,” he said. “In other words, what I’m telling you is there’s a lot of people working hard to get the job done, but there is more we can do.”

A spokeswoman for Napolitano did not return calls seeking comment on Bush’s remarks.

Both parties expect immigration to take a central role in elections next year and in 2008.

White House strategists have tried to stake out a middle ground in an effort to satisfy business supporters, who favor the cheaper labor that migrants provide, while also mollifying anti-immigration conservatives and attracting greater numbers of Latino voters.

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An administration-backed group, the Coalition for Border and Economic Security, has been established to pool the resources of industry associations to promote the Bush guest worker plan, but it has gotten off to a slow start -- with some business lobbyists wary that conservatives in Congress will push the White House to back an overly restrictive policy.

Republican political operatives view the issue as crucial if they hope to compete for California’s 55 electoral votes -- more than 20% of the 271 needed to win the presidency -- while continuing to make gains in states such as Arizona, New Mexico and Florida that are facing challenges of immigration.

The pronouncements this month by Richardson and Napolitano added a twist to the GOP struggles, with two high-profile, ambitious Democrats attacking the Republican president from his political right. In California, bipartisan pressure has been growing on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to join Napolitano and Richardson in declaring a border emergency -- a suggestion the Republican governor has resisted.

Bush told the crowd in Arizona that he had just spoken with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to check on border security efforts. He said Chertoff assured him that the government was doing its job.

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“There are more resources that will be available, we’ll have more folks on the border; there will be more detention space to make sure that those who are stopped trying to illegally enter our country are able to be detained,” he said.

“It’s important for the people of this state to understand your voices are being heard in Washington.”

Despite GOP hopes of making gains in California -- evidenced, perhaps, by a two-day stay in which Bush was scheduled to speak today at the North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego -- there were signs that the state remains a struggle.

This trip marked Bush’s 14th visit to the nation’s largest state since his 2001 inauguration -- a rare venture into territory that is considered a Democratic stronghold in presidential elections and where Bush’s approval rating, according to one recent survey, was just 38%. By contrast, President Clinton visited the state 56 times during his eight years in office.

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Schwarzenegger’s approval rating is even lower than Bush’s -- only 34% in a survey this month by the Public Policy Institute of California. Deep in his own quest to pass several statewide ballot initiatives and, perhaps, to seek reelection next year, the governor chose not to appear Monday with Bush in Rancho Cucamonga, and aides said he had no plan to do so in San Diego today.

Rob Stutzman, a spokesman for the governor, said his boss’ no-show was merely “a matter of schedules not being able to align.”

Stutzman said Antonio Villaraigosa’s scheduled visit to Sacramento today -- his first as mayor of Los Angeles -- was seen as a particularly important event that the governor did not want to miss.

Still, Schwarzenegger opted to meet a Democratic mayor rather than a president from his own party. And relations between the White House and the governor have never been particularly cozy, starting with the lack of encouragement Schwarzenegger received from Washington when he was considering a run in the 2003 recall election.

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Schwarzenegger and Bush have split on public funding of embryonic stem cell research, with Bush backing limits, and the White House has not backed the governor’s push to shift the power to redraw legislative and congressional boundaries from the Assembly to judges, a move opposed by many in the state’s GOP delegation on Capitol Hill.

Monday’s events were intended by White House strategists to focus on promoting the Bush-backed Medicare prescription drug plan that takes effect next year. But Bush could not avoid more pressing political concerns, such as immigration and soaring gas prices.

“I wish I could just snap my fingers and lower the price of gasoline for you,” he said in Arizona. “The markets don’t work that way. I’d be snapping if I could do it.”


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