President Bush renewed his efforts Saturday to address a major domestic policy challenge -- one that possibly remains in reach -- by telling graduating students that the United States must build new immigration laws around economic needs and border protection, while helping newcomers join American society.
As part of a daylong trip to southern Florida mixing politics with policy, Bush addressed graduates, their families and other guests at the Kendall campus of Miami Dade College, a commuter college in a largely Latino district. Earlier, Bush raised $1 million for the Republican National Committee at a luncheon in Key Biscayne.
The president’s choice of topic and locale for his immigration remarks underscored the challenges he faces, as he seeks to avoid a standstill on domestic policy and move toward a long-held goal of building new Republican support among Latino voters -- while talking about something other than the Iraq war.
Bush made only a passing reference to the war in his 19-minute speech.
Along with his weekly radio address Saturday morning -- also on immigration -- the remarks raised the visibility of the issue. They were intended, Deputy White House Press Secretary Scott Stanzel said, to signal to Congress the importance Bush attaches to it, at the end of a week in which radio talk-show hosts and others lobbied in Washington for tougher immigration laws.
The president said the nation’s immigration system was “not working” and could not be fixed piecemeal. He called for a comprehensive approach “that will allow us to secure our borders and enforce our laws once and for all, that will keep us competitive in a global economy, and that will resolve the status of those already here, without amnesty and without animosity.”
He saluted the diversity exemplified by Miami and the college, pointing out that more than half of its students were raised speaking a language other than English.
“Over the years, America’s ability to assimilate new immigrants has set us apart from other nations. What makes us Americans is a shared belief in democracy and liberty. And now our nation faces a vital challenge: to build an immigration system that upholds these ideals -- and meets America’s needs in the 21st century.”
For Bush, it was a day of organized adulation -- first among Republican contributors; then, in a blue academic gown with black stripes, among students who gave him three ovations before he began speaking and interrupted him more than a dozen times with applause as he praised their struggle to obtain an education and their diversity.
With Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, his approval ratings dipping in one recent survey below 30%, and much of his attention taken up by the war, Bush has had little opportunity to make a major impact on domestic policy or to advance new programs.
The White House aims to win reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind education law that was a signature domestic policy achievement of his first term, and Bush speaks occasionally about shifting the nation’s reliance on petroleum to ethanol and other renewable fuels. But overhauling immigration laws could prove the most controversial of his domestic priorities, and would demand a level of bipartisan cooperation that could be particularly difficult for him to muster given his weakened political standing.
Recognizing the challenge, he said Tuesday in an interview with Charlie Rose, the PBS television host, that an immigration bill would be a “bold stroke” in the closing 21 months of his administration.
But he is running out of time: Presidential politics in 2008 are more likely to pull the parties apart than bring them together.
Bush’s proposal, which faces the prospect of modification in slow-moving Senate talks, includes several elements recently added to increase the appeal to those who have pressed for stricter enforcement of existing laws -- mostly Republicans -- without losing Democratic support.
These include increasing by 53%, to 18,300, the number of Border Patrol agents working on the Mexican border, a four-fold extension of the existing border fence, and, most likely, requiring that anyone seeking a job in the United States present secure identification.
A key shift would drop a long-standing practice of admitting immigrants seeking to join family members, instead using employment needs to determine admission.
Besides the boost in border security and efforts to verify a job applicant’s legal status, the plan emphasizes creating a guest worker program and efforts to bring into the open the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.
Before the speech, Bush attended a closed-door luncheon at the home of Ed Easton, a businessman friend of former Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother. According to Republican National Committee spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt, the gathering raised $1 million for the GOP. On Tuesday, Bush attended an RNC fundraiser in New York City.
In the college speech, Bush acknowledged the opposition to Fidel Castro that still fueled politics here, criticizing a “cruel dictatorship” that “denies all freedom in the name of a dark and discredited ideology.”
He said Castro’s rule was nearing an end, and added: “In Cuba and across the world, all who struggle for freedom have a friend in the United States, and we will stand with them until the struggle is won.”