President Bush unveiled the basics of his latest immigration proposal Monday, a mix of tougher border enforcement and a complicated path to legal status for illegal immigrants that the White House hopes can break the congressional deadlock over the thorny issue.
“It’s important that we get a bill done,” Bush said at a Border Patrol station, asking Congress to send legislation to his desk this year.
He launched a similar initiative in a nationally televised speech 11 months ago but, despite support from most Democrats, was stymied by fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill. Whether he can help steer passage of a bill this year looms as a major test of his clout in Congress in the latter half of his last term.
Although the president was vague about the details of his new effort, proposals being discussed among White House officials and GOP lawmakers seem designed to bring recalcitrant Republicans aboard.
For instance, one plan would require illegal immigrants wishing to remain in the United States to return to their country of origin first and pay a $10,000 fine to obtain a three-year work visa. The visas would be renewable, at a cost of $3,500. Also, illegal immigrants who were in the U.S. before June 1, 2006, who paid various fees and fines and who met other criteria, including learning English, eventually could seek to become citizens.
These conditions for visas and citizenship are more stringent than provisions in a Bush-supported bill that the Senate passed last year. But it remains uncertain whether tougher conditions will overcome the objections of those who consider it amnesty to provide any path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Bush said in his Monday speech -- as he has throughout the immigration debate -- that he opposed amnesty, which he defined as “the forgiveness of an offense without penalty.”
He said he was working with the Democrats who now control Congress and Republicans “to find a practical answer that lies between granting automatic citizenship to every illegal immigrant and deporting every illegal immigrant.”
Deportation, he added, is “just an impractical position; it’s not going to work. It may sound good; it may make nice sound bite news -- it won’t happen.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and top Senate Democrats, such as Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, have told the White House that they cannot pass a bill relying almost exclusively on Democratic votes. That forces the administration to work for Republican support.
“We must secure our borders and enforce our laws, while also protecting against discrimination and adhering faithfully to the rule of law,” Pelosi said in a statement after Bush’s speech. “At the same time, we must enact immigration reform that is humane and honors our American tradition of being a nation of immigrants.”
In another political dilemma for Bush, the more he embraces stiff conditions for visas and citizenship, the more he risks undercutting support among Democratic liberals for an overhaul of immigration rules.
“We’re having productive conversations with members from both sides of the aisle in both houses about comprehensive reform,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. “There are a number of proposals floating around and a number of discussions going on.”
One new wrinkle under consideration by the White House would rewrite the law on legal immigration. Currently, family relations play a key role in obtaining visas that grant immigrants legal residency. Under proposals being discussed by Republicans in the Senate, business needs would take higher priority than family connections.
Democrats and several immigrant-advocacy groups are concerned about such proposals, as well as the other proposed conditions under which illegal immigrants could get work visas and seek citizenship.
On Saturday, about 7,000 to 10,000 people marched in downtown Los Angeles, protesting the proposals and calling for a broad amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Bush visited the border outpost of Yuma in May as part of his push for an immigration bill. On his return trip, he sought to stress progress in beefing up surveillance equipment and stemming illegal crossings in the area.
“When I landed here at the airport, the first thing I saw was an unmanned aerial vehicle,” Bush said in his speech to about 350 border agents, National Guard personnel and local law enforcement officials. “It’s a sophisticated piece of equipment. You can fly it from inside a truck, and you can look at people moving at night. It’s the most sophisticated technology we have, and it’s down here on the border to help the Border Patrol agents do their job.”
Accompanied by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, Bush was briefed on the aerial vehicle and inspected border fencing that Congress ordered last year.
“It’s amazing progress that’s been made,” Bush said as he viewed the barrier, roads and lighting installed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
In his speech, Bush said that since his last visit, increased deterrence had resulted in a 55% reduction in apprehensions along the 125-mile border from the Yuma-Pima County line in Arizona to the Imperial Sand Dunes in California.
“One way that the Border Patrol can tell whether or not we’re making progress is the number of apprehensions,” he said. “When you’re apprehending fewer people, it means fewer are trying to come across. And fewer are trying to come across because we’re deterring people from attempting illegal border crossings in the first place.”
Bush noted that under his watch, the number of border agents nationwide had risen to 13,000, from about 9,000 -- and that the total was to reach 18,000 by 2008.
“You can’t do the job the American people expect unless you’ve got the manpower, and we’re increasing the manpower down here,” he said.
He also said his administration was “cracking down on employers who knowingly violate the law” by hiring illegal immigrants.
Reaction to Bush’s speech underscored the hurdles facing an immigration bill.
Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, said he did not hear signs of a major policy shift in Bush’s remarks. King remains opposed to the president’s immigration plan because he considers it tantamount to amnesty, he said.
“My definition of amnesty is when you forgive and reward lawbreakers with the objective of their crimes,” he said.
Janet Murguia, president and chief executive of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights group, said Bush gave a good speech. But she also said she did not hear much new from him.
“At some point very soon,” she said, “he needs to stop selling and start delivering on the principles of this plan.”
Times staff writer Adam Schreck in Washington contributed to this report.