Bush strongly defends deal on immigration

Times Staff Writer

President Bush on Saturday tackled head-on a key criticism of the immigration agreement pending before Congress, asserting it would settle the status of illegal immigrants without granting them amnesty.

With the Senate set to debate the measure this week, the clash over what constitutes amnesty looms as one of the major points of contention in the bill, which also would toughen border security and establish a guest worker program.

The legislation would offer probationary legal status to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants who were in the U.S. before Jan. 1, 2007. Those who then met a series of requirements -- including payment of $5,000 in fines and $2,000 in processing fees -- could gain citizenship within an estimated 12 to 13 years.

In his weekly radio address Saturday, Bush said the plan “will help us resolve the status of millions of illegal immigrants who are here already, without animosity and without amnesty.”


But critics, led by Republican conservatives, argue that any measure that would ultimately clear a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants represents amnesty, regardless of penalty provisions.

As Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) put it earlier this year, “My definition of amnesty is when you forgive and reward lawbreakers with the objective of their crimes.”

Bush’s remarks represented his first detailed public comment on the immigration proposal since it was unveiled Thursday after extensive negotiations among several Democratic and Republican senators and two Cabinet members.

Although the president long has pushed for a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, he largely steered clear of the talks that produced the accord.

The immigration issue is politically sensitive for Bush, given the opposition of some of his most ardent supporters to any bill that goes beyond beefed-up border security and a crackdown on the employment of illegal immigrants. But it is a topic he has focused on since he served as governor of Texas in the 1990s.

Bush said that under the Senate bill, those who “come out of the shadows” of illegal immigration will qualify for a special visa if they “pass a strict background check, pay a fine, hold a job, maintain a clean criminal record and eventually learn English.”

To become citizens, he said, they must pay an additional fine, “go to the back of the line [of applications], pass a citizenship test, and return to their country to apply for their green card.”

The debate’s potential impact on the 2008 presidential race was evident Saturday at the South Carolina Republican Party’s state convention.

According to the Associated Press, many in the crowd cheered when White House contender Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, said: “One simple rule: No amnesty.”

Romney said of the rules that would permit illegal immigrants to obtain a special visa: “If that’s not a form of amnesty, I don’t know what is.”

Another leading GOP presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, sides with Bush’s arguments on the issue and was among those involved in producing the new bill. But boos greeted a defense of the plan at the South Carolina gathering by the state’s senior senator, Lindsey Graham, a McCain supporter.

The president recorded his address on the matter Friday, before he began a weekend visit to his ranch home in Crawford.

The legislation reaches far beyond the question of whether those who entered the United States illegally should be allowed to stay under any conditions.

It calls for hiring about 6,000 additional Border Patrol officers, building hundreds of miles of fences and vehicle barriers, and expanding surveillance with radar towers and aerial drones. Also, employers would be required to electronically verify the legal status of new hires and would face stiff penalties for breaking the law.

The plan would also revise rules for future legal immigration, giving less priority to relatives of those already in the U.S. and more to applicants with certain job skills.

That provision has drawn criticism from some Democrats and has heightened uncertainty about the bill’s fate.