Bush Calls for Civil Debate on Immigration Proposals

Times Staff Writers

President Bush on Thursday urged all sides in the immigration debate to tone down their rhetoric and engage in civil, respectful discussion as Congress nears action on an issue that has sharply divided the nation and the Republican Party.

The Senate is expected next week to consider legislative proposals to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, and key provisions -- particularly those that would permit foreigners to work temporarily in the United States -- have become the focus of disagreement on Capitol Hill, on conservative talk shows and at political meetings.

The vitriol on immigration far exceeds the language surrounding other significant but less emotional policy controversies, including changes in tax laws and the prescription drug benefit that has been added to Medicare.

“It’s important that we have a serious debate, one that discusses the issues. But I urge members of Congress and I urge people who like to comment on this issue to make sure the rhetoric is in accord with our traditions,” Bush said after meeting with supporters of his immigration proposal.

“When we conduct this debate, it must be done in a civil way. It must be done in a way that brings dignity to the process. It must be done in a way that doesn’t pit one group of people against another.”


The issue is politically sensitive for Bush and his fellow Republicans.

Increasing the Republican share of the Latino vote has been a key objective for Bush’s chief political advisor, Karl Rove, as part of his strategy to solidify GOP control of the presidency and Congress.

Through the 2004 election, it appeared that Bush and Rove were succeeding.

In that contest, Bush picked up 45% of the Latino vote, according to Los Angeles Times exit polls, a gain of 7 percentage points from 2000. But a harsh debate over immigration could erase GOP gains among Latinos, give the party an anti-immigrant cast and prompt a backlash.

Perhaps the loudest congressional voice in the campaign to restrict immigration has been that of Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.).

Reflecting the divisions within their party over immigration, Tancredo and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas -- who on nearly all other issues wins strong support from conservatives -- have taken opposite positions on allowing undocumented workers to remain in the United States while pursuing legalization of their status. Tancredo opposes it; Brownback favors it.

Asked about the president’s request for civility, Tancredo’s spokesman, Will Adams, offered no apology for his boss’ views.

The congressman, Adams said, has “devoted his political career to immigration because he thinks it’s essential to our national security and our economic security, and to who we are as Americans. Occasionally, the debate does get uncivil, but this is a product of it being so important.”

But even the president’s request that participants in the debate control their language drew finger-pointing.

Adams quoted his boss as saying: “With respect to the call to cool it down, Hillary Clinton said yesterday that the House bill would criminalize Jesus, so I assume the president is referring to her.”

In a brief news conference Wednesday, Clinton (D-N.Y.) said that a bill the House approved in December “would literally criminalize not only every nondocumented immigrant in our country but every person who helped, assisted, reached out [or] otherwise responded in a humanitarian way to the needs of immigrants.

“It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scripture, because this bill would literally criminalize the good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself,” she said.

Her spokesman, Philippe Reines, said of the president’s request Thursday: “Since Sen. Clinton has always discussed this important issue in a serious, civil and dignified manner, we assume that his admonition was directed elsewhere.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan offered no hints to suggest at whom the president was pointing -- but there is no shortage of potential targets.

Anti-immigration activist Juan Mann, whose calls for stronger law enforcement appear on The Immigration Blog website, has written that Michael Chertoff, the secretary of Homeland Security, “has been dutifully peddling the Bush administration’s ongoing promotion of the Big Lie that a ‘guest worker program’ is not an illegal-alien amnesty.”

Chris Simcox, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, said Thursday in a news release that “America’s national security is being held hostage by Democrat Party leaders who have placed the interests of millions of lawbreakers before secure borders and the expressed will of the American people. Our southern border is a virtual war zone.”

The House version of immigration legislation focuses solely on border security and enforcement and does not address the guest worker program Bush favors.

It includes a provision that would bar health-care workers, educators and others to provide assistance to undocumented workers.

At a conference at the Capitol on Thursday, Anna Burger, chairwoman of Change to Win, a coalition that favors increased rights for immigrant workers, described the House measure as “an evil bill. It criminalizes children, all of us, those who are immigrants and those who help immigrants.”

The Senate is scheduled to begin debating broader immigration legislation Monday. Republicans are deeply divided over whether the overhaul should address enforcement issues first, or whether to take a comprehensive approach and include a guest worker program and a way to deal with the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States.

Times staff writer Ricardo Alonzo-Zaldivar contributed to this report.