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Bush Seeks to Assure Fox Over Border

Times Staff Writer

As the White House prepared to announce deployment of National Guard troops along the nation’s southern border to stanch the flood of illegal immigrants, President Bush tried to reassure the president of Mexico on Sunday that the move was temporary and did not amount to militarization of the border.

Bush is expected to detail plans to secure the border in a nationally televised address today on the politically volatile topic of immigration.

While White House staff members were working on the speech and finalizing the deployment plans, Mexican President Vicente Fox called Bush on Sunday morning to “relay his concerns,” White House spokeswoman Maria Tamburri said.

Bush “made clear that the United States considers Mexico a friend and that what is being considered is not a militarization of the border but support of Border Patrol capabilities on a temporary basis by National Guard personnel,” she said.

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A statement issued Sunday by Fox’s office noted that Bush had repeated his call for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws.

Bush’s speech from the Oval Office this evening is designed to win support for that approach, along the lines of legislation pending in the Senate. In addition to stepped-up border enforcement, Bush advocates a guest worker program and a plan to allow millions of illegal immigrants an opportunity to attain U.S. citizenship.

The White House said Sunday that no final decision had been made on whether to deploy additional members of the National Guard along the border. However, the administration has discussed adding several thousand Guard members to the few hundred already deployed as support for the Border Patrol along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

Members of both parties have expressed concern about a National Guard deployment to the border, saying that it might strain military resources already depleted by the Iraq war and that it appears to be politically motivated.

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“It’s not about militarization of the border,” said White House national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley on CNN’s “Late Edition.” “It’s about assisting the civilian Border Patrol in doing their job, providing intelligence, providing support, logistics support and training, and these sorts of things.”

Members of both parties have complained about the National Guard plan. When it was first floated on Friday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told CNN en Espanol that the Guard was, “as a result of the war in Iraq, so overextended, so depleted in numbers and in equipment, I don’t know how in the world we could ask them to have this additional burden.”

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, said Friday in Sacramento that using Guard troops was “not the right way to go” and called on Washington to “put up the money to create the kind of protection that the federal government is responsible to provide.”

On Sunday, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who helped negotiate the comprehensive immigration legislation being considered by the Senate later this week, said he too was wary of using the Guard.

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“I think we have to be very careful here,” Hagel said on ABC’s “This Week.” “That’s not the role of our military. That’s not the role of our National Guard.” He said that the U.S. had “stretched our military as thin as we have ever seen it in modern times.”

But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) dismissed such criticism as “whining and moaning” and said that moving the Guard to the border was the only alternative for the moment.

“We hear from the American people. We’ve got millions of people coming across that border. First and foremost, secure the border, whatever it takes,” Frist told “Late Edition.”

Some conservatives encouraged the president to take even bolder action. In a column written for the conservative publication Human Events and posted on its website, Rep. Charles W. Norwood (R-Ga.) urged Bush to initially call up 36,000 National Guard troops for border duty, then replace them within a year with 50,000 full-time military personnel.

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“If President Bush signed that order Monday night, our border would be secure for the first time in decades by Memorial Day at the latest. Mexico President Vicente Fox and La Raza wouldn’t like it -- but the American people sure would,” he wrote.

The House passed an immigration bill in December that focused on border security but did not address the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States or the guest worker program sought by businesses and Bush.

The House bill would make illegal presence in the United States a felony rather than a civil offense, a provision that helped spur protests nationwide.

Some House members say that giving legal status or citizenship to illegal immigrants would amount to amnesty for lawbreakers.

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Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), leader of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, condemned the Senate agreement last week and predicted conflict.

By agreeing to bring up the Senate bill this week, Tancredo said Friday in a prepared statement, “Bill Frist pushed the Senate toward the biggest illegal alien amnesty in American history.... Frist has put the Senate on a collision course with the House.”

To deal with this sort of argument from conservative Republicans, the president is emphasizing border security as the first step in his multi-part immigration proposal.

“The president certainly supports strengthening the security of the borders,” Hadley said Sunday. “Spending is up, number of Border Patrol is up. This is something that the president has been paying attention to and doing, and the administration has been doing ... the last four years. So this is a priority for the president. It’s an important element of dealing with immigration reform.”

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Whereas conservatives such as Norwood and Tancredo emphasize border security, business leaders and immigrant advocates have been encouraging a plan to allow guest workers into the country and some kind of program to allow the illegal immigrants already in the U.S. to attain citizenship.

“We can be both -- control our borders and be humane,” Hadley said. “We can do it in a legal way. And we need to do it in a way that provides a lawful way for people to come to work in the United States.”

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, improving relations with Mexico and easing border tensions were priority topics for Bush, who has long prided himself as a Republican who drew Latino support.

In 1994, as the newly elected governor of Texas, Bush made a name for himself by criticizing California’s Proposition 187, backed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, that sought to discourage people abroad from entering the country illegally by stripping undocumented immigrants of state benefits, including access to public schools.

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The president’s plan to ease border and immigration tensions between the U.S. and Mexico was sidelined by the terrorist attacks and could run into further trouble with his proposal to deploy the National Guard along the border. In their conversation Sunday, White House spokeswoman Tamburri said, Bush sought to reassure his Mexican counterpart.

“The two leaders ... reaffirmed the shared responsibility between the two countries to secure the border,” she said in an e-mailed statement.

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Times staff writers Nicole Gaouette in Washington and Hector Tobar in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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