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Bush urges 'civil debate' on immigration
McClatchy Newspapers


March 25, 2006

WASHINGTON - President Bush moved off the sidelines Thursday, rejoining an immigration debate he helped kick off two years ago but which has since bedeviled his fellow Republicans.

Using the bully pulpit and the power of a White House invitation, Bush convened more than a dozen immigration reform advocates to spotlight his support for a comprehensive immigration package. That means a combination of fences and doors.

"Our government must enforce our borders; we've got plans in place to do so," Bush said. "But part of enforcing our borders is to have a guest-worker program that encourages people to register their presence ... and says to them, if you're doing a job an American won't do, you're welcome here for a period of time to do that job."






Bush's core immigration message was essentially identical to one he unveiled at a high-profile White House event in January 2004. But the 45-minute session Thursday in the White House Roosevelt Room, attended by Vice President Dick Cheney, California Central Valley farm lobbyist Monte Lake, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and others, was also tactically timed.

"This is especially important, as a signal to Congress of his interest in the issue," said John Gay, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association.

On Monday, the Senate will start debating various immigration proposals. The White House event that included 15 invited participants gathering around a long oval table underscored the president's focus, something that hasn't always been apparent on Capitol Hill.

"President Bush," Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, charged Wednesday, "is virtually AWOL on this subject."

The White House's own website devoted to immigration, for instance, lists no relevant events or speeches between March 2004 and October 2005. Only one-third of Americans surveyed in December in a Washington Post-ABC News poll voiced approval for how Bush was handling the immigration issue.

The Bush administration supported a border security bill passed by the House in December. Still, Bush's stress Thursday on comprehensive legislation set him apart from the lawmakers who want only border security measures. The symbolic highlights of the House bill include building a multibillion-dollar fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and declaring that all illegal immigrants now in this country are felons.

In Capitol Hill code, by contrast, "comprehensive" means including a guest-worker plan and, potentially, some way for the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants now in this country to attain legal status.

"We believe that we can have rational, important immigration policy that's based upon law and reflects our deep desire to be a compassionate and decent nation," Bush said.

Bush, who will meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox in Cancun on March 30-31, repeatedly urged a "civil" debate that "doesn't pit one group of people against another." He did not specifically cite anyone for criticism, nor did White House officials endorse by name any of the specific bills that have been introduced so far. In the past two years, the White House has not offered its own detailed legislative language.

"It is their political judgment that weighing in on the specifics is not the most effective thing they can do now," said Tamar Jacoby, an analyst with the conservative but immigrant-friendly Manhattan Institute.

Bush and Cheney, along with the White House's top political guru, Karl Rove, joined the Thursday meeting after Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez promised the participants that he would be promoting immigration reform as his top priority "24-7." Bush himself, despite widespread Capitol Hill sentiment to the contrary, told the participants he feels he has been talking about immigration more than any other topic save for the Iraq war.

"The thing that stood out to me was that the president was so in tune with the issue," said Shirley Peckosh, a nursery owner and member of the American Nursery and Landscape Association.


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