The president is feeling pressure from many sides over the overhaul of immigration policy.
IRVINE, Calif. -- President Bush is walking a fine line in the nation's emotional debate over the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
There is his party's conservative base, which wants an immigration clampdown. And business leaders who believe the economy needs immigrants to swell the work force.
With continued GOP control of Congress at risk in the November elections, all sides are exerting pressure.
While armed citizen patrols pop up in border states, leaders in Arizona and New Mexico have pleaded for better policing of U.S. borders and other communities complain about the pressure that burgeoning immigrant populations are placing on local services. At the same time, tens of thousands of Latinos and others -- a coveted voting bloc -- have taken to the streets across the country in the last few weeks to demand more immigration-friendly policies.
With Congress coming back from a two-week spring recess, Bush urged lawmakers to adopt a middle ground. He called a Senate bill, which would boost border security and create a way for illegal immigrants to work legally in the United States and for many to eventually become citizens, an "important approach."
"It's just an interesting concept that people need to think through," Bush said of the bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., which stalled before the congressional break.
When Bush turned to the audience assembled by the Orange County Business Council for questions, three of the eight queries he took were on immigration, including one woman who asked for his solution to emergency rooms crowded with poor people seeking routine care. Southern California's Orange County is a heavily Republican swath of sprawling Los Angeles suburbs that has been known -- even parodied -- as white, rich and conservative. But minorities now make up a majority of residents.
Bush sought to highlight the important contributions of immigrants to American society, and lamented the harsh -- and sometimes deadly -- conditions that many people face trying to enter the country illegally.
"One thing we cannot lose sight of is that we're talking about human beings, decent human beings that need to be treated with respect," the president said.
As he has before, Bush stopped short of directly endorsing the McCain bill. The White House will go no further than to call it an attractive vehicle to keep negotiations moving forward.
The bill, also sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., would create three-year visas for guest workers. Those who have been in the country longer than five years would not have to return to their home countries to apply for the visas. It also would allow the workers to apply for legal permanent residency after paying a $2,000 fine, learning to speak English and working six years.
The House passed a law-and-order-only immigration bill that would erect fences along the Mexican border and treat people who sneak across borders as felons to be deported. And an alternative Senate measure would set up a temporary guest worker program, like the McCain bill, but require all illegal immigrants to leave the United States before they could apply for the visas.
"Massive deportation of the people here is unrealistic -- it's just not going to work," Bush said. "You know, you can hear people out there hollering it's going to work. It's not going to work."
A Time magazine poll in January found 50 percent of the country favored deporting all illegal immigrants. But even Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., one of Congress' most outspoken advocates for tougher immigration laws, does not advocate mass deportation.
In an apparent, though indirect, reference to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Bush said the McCain measure had been derailed by "needless politics." Republicans have been accusing Reid, D-Nev., of blocking the bill because he failed to reach agreement with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. on a procedure for voting on amendments sought by GOP opponents of the legislation.
"President Bush likes to point his finger on immigration and many other issues. Isn't it about time we moved beyond that?," Reid said Monday on the Senate floor. "The Senate can move forward on immigration if the president will stand up to those in his party who are filibustering."
Reid also criticized Bush for not more clearly spelling out how he supports dealing with the nation's entire population of illegal immigrants.
"He never got involved in the immigration debate until after the two votes took place. Then he was a great finger pointer," Reid said. "What does he want regarding immigration?"
Bush's immigration speech, and a later event at a Las Vegas casino that raised $400,000 for Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., ended a four-day stay in California. Bush is to meet at the White House Tuesday with a bipartisan group of senators on immigration.
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