Bush Calls for Buildup on Border
President Bush, acknowledging that the nation “has not been in complete control of its borders,” said Monday that he would send as many as 6,000 National Guard troops to help secure the border with Mexico and would boost funding to train local authorities to assist in detaining illegal immigrants.
In a rare prime-time address from the Oval Office, Bush sought to build momentum behind a broad overhaul of immigration laws now before Congress. His proposals to tighten border security were aimed at winning support from conservative lawmakers who say the nation’s top concern must be to stop illegal border crossings.
But Bush said that legislation must also “meet the needs of our economy” for immigrant labor by including a temporary worker program, and that it must include a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country. He said this path should be open to illegal immigrants who had “deep roots” in the U.S. and who were willing to learn English, pay back taxes and pay a penalty for having entered the country illegally.
He called these conditions “a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant, and a program of mass deportation.... What I have just described is not amnesty. It is a way for those who have broken the law to pay their debt to society and demonstrate the character that makes a good citizen.”
The 17-minute address, coming after weeks of nationwide protests by immigrants and their advocates, was the president’s clearest statement of his position on immigration. Bush also made a passionate plea for greater recognition of the contributions that immigrants make to American society, even as he acknowledged the burdens that illegal immigration imposes on local communities.
“Immigration puts pressure on public schools and hospitals, strains state and local budgets, and brings crime to our communities,” he said. “These are real problems, yet we must remember that the vast majority of illegal immigrants are decent people who work hard, support their families, practice their faith and lead responsible lives.”
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he agreed with the president on the need for a broad overhaul of immigration policies. But he criticized the plan to use the National Guard on the border.
“Border state governors were not consulted about this proposal in advance, and there are many outstanding questions about the impact of the president’s proposal on Californians,” he said in a statement.
“It remains unclear what impact only 6,000 National Guard troops will have on securing the border,” Schwarzenegger said. “I am concerned [that] asking National Guard troops to guard our nation’s border is a Band-Aid solution and not the permanent solution we need.”
Bush said he would create 6,000 slots for National Guard troops on the border to supplement the existing 12,000 federal Border Patrol agents. After one year, Guard deployment would fall in tandem with a planned increase in border agents.
National Guard troops would be used to help the Border Patrol with intelligence-gathering, road construction, the installation of vehicle barriers and other tasks. “Guard units will not be involved in direct law enforcement activities,” Bush said, adding that the U.S. “is not going to militarize the southern border. Mexico is our neighbor and our friend.”
Some lawmakers said Bush’s speech could profoundly change the immigration policy debate in Congress, where the odds for the type of legislation the president favors are good in the Senate but poor in the House.
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), vice chairman of the House Republican Conference, said Bush could help forge a compromise between lawmakers who favor a temporary worker program and a pathway to citizenship and House conservatives who oppose those ideas. “We’ve got a new player in the game -- the president of the United States,” he said.
Still, many conservative Republicans remained unmoved by the Guard deployment, especially in the House, which in December passed a get-tough immigration bill that focused on securing the border and improving enforcement of immigration law at the workplace.
“If [Bush] had done this two years ago, and we could see some real results, that might improve the environment for a debate about what do we do now,” said Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.).
Jones said he did not believe a National Guard deployment would do anything to get the House to consider a guest worker program or a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. “To me, this is like, ‘Well, look what I’m doing for you. Now, pass my bill,’ ” he said.
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) issued a statement saying: “I have real concerns about moving forward with a guest worker program or a plan to address those currently in the United States illegally until we have adequately addressed our serious border security problems.”
Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) called the president’s proposal a “modest” start. “The Guard needs to be involved far above and beyond a modest allocation of troops,” he said.
Bush said his administration had increased funding for border security by 66% and that the number of Border Patrol agents would rise from 12,000 to 18,000 by the end of 2008. He said the agents would be supported by increased technology, including motion sensors, infrared cameras and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Bush said that raising staffing levels and deploying technology would take time, and using the National Guard would cover the shortfall.
In his speech, Bush said the administration would also expand the number of beds in detention facilities, allowing Border Patrol agents to speed up deportation and ensure that all illegal immigrants were returned to their home countries. In the past, insufficient bed space forced the Border Patrol to release illegal immigrants with a request that they return for a court date. Few did.
On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security opened a 500-bed facility in Texas specifically for families caught crossing the border.
The president said the administration would increase funding for state and local officials to assist the Border Patrol on “targeted enforcement missions.”
Administration officials said before the speech that they were working with Congress to fund the president’s proposals with $1.9 billion that the Senate had anticipated devoting to other border security needs.
Bush’s call to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants “with deep roots in the United States” appeared to be a nod to a proposal by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) that would limit citizenship measures to those with either a spouse or child who was a United States citizen.
Bush defined “deep roots” somewhat differently, saying that “there are differences between an illegal immigrant who crossed the border recently, and someone who has worked here for many years and has a home, a family, and an otherwise clean record.”
He did not address the fate of people who were in the country illegally but who did not meet the definition of having deep roots.
Bush’s speech was timed to coincide with the Senate’s return Monday to its debate on revamping immigration. The Senate is considering a bill that would add border personnel and equipment and create a guest worker program that would allow some participants to apply for permanent residency. Bush, by contrast, said that all participants in a guest worker program should have to return home after their work visas expired.
The Senate bill would also offer most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States a way of earning citizenship, though based on the length of their stay rather than on whether they had “deep roots.”
The House legislation does not include a guest worker program or any mechanism to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants.
In an attempt to sustain whatever momentum his speech generates, Bush will host a meeting at the White House this afternoon with a bipartisan group of senators “to discuss how to get the nuts and bolts of this thing done,” said a Senate aide who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the subject.
Next week in Sacramento, Schwarzenegger is scheduled to hold his first meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox. After more than two years in office, Schwarzenegger has made two trips to Mexico for border governors’ meetings, but never for an official state visit to Los Pinos, the Mexico City equivalent of the White House. Former Gov. Gray Davis met multiple times with Fox.
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.