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Bush wants to send Guard to secure Mexican border
WASHINGTON -- President Bush's new plan for fixing the nation's immigration woes is an old-fashioned carrot-and-stick approach.
The stick comes in the form of 6,000 National Guard troops dispatched to the U.S.-Mexico border to help support efforts to apprehend foreigners trying to sneak into the country. The carrot goes to millions of illegal immigrants already working in the United States who would get the chance to become citizens if they were willing to pay a fine and back taxes and learn English.
The one-two combo is aimed at winning support from get-tough conservatives so that Bush can achieve his goal of creating an immigration system that he says would be more fair and humane. Bush also wants temporary permits for foreigners to come to the United States and work in low-paying jobs.
Some conservatives in Bush's party say the citizenship proposal amounts to amnesty. He rejected that term in a prime-time Oval Office address timed to coincide with the start of Senate debate on the issue.
"It is neither wise nor realistic to round up millions of people, many with deep roots in the United States and send them across the border," Bush said. "There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant and a program of mass deportation."
The National Guard troops, which the White House hopes would begin moving to the border early next month, would fill in temporarily while the nation's Border Patrol force is expanded. Bush asked Congress to add 6,000 more Border Patrol agents by the end of his presidency and to add 6,700 more beds so illegal immigrants can be detained while waiting for hearings to determine that they can be sent home.
"We do not yet have full control of the border and I am determined to change that," the president said in a 17-minute prime-time address.
For many years, the government has not had enough detention space to hold illegal immigrants, so they were released into society and most did not return for their court date. "This practice, called catch and release, is unacceptable and we will end it," Bush said
The Guard troops would mostly serve two-week stints before rotating out of the assignment, so keeping the force level at 6,000 over the course of a year could require up to 156,000 troops.
Still, Bush insisted, "The United States is not going to militarize the southern border."
The White House wouldn't say how much the deployments would cost, but said the troops would paid for as part of $1.9 billion being requested from Congress to supplement border enforcement this year.
The Border Patrol would remain responsible for catching and detaining illegal immigrants, with National Guard troops providing intelligence gathering, surveillance and other administrative support. Yet the National Guard troops would still be armed and authorized to use force to protect themselves, said Bush homeland security adviser Fran Townsend.
They are to come from the four border states -- California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas -- but those states' governors may also seek Guard troops from other states. Reaction was mixed among the nation's governors.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said troops might provide short-term relief, but he does not believe border protection is an appropriate role for the National Guard. California has thousands of Guard troops in Iraq and might need them in case of earthquakes, floods or other emergencies, Schwarzenegger said.
"So if you have 6,000 in Iraq and send another 6,000 to the border, what do we have left?" Schwarzenegger said.
But another Republican border state governor, Rick Perry of Texas, said he was glad the administration has realized the Guard has a role to play along the border. "We have the ability to multitask," Perry said.
Many congressional Republicans said they support Bush's plan to use National Guard troops at the border. But he ran into criticism from Democrats and some other Republicans.
"Democrats are willing to support any reasonable plan that will secure our borders, including deploying National Guard troops," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "But Americans don't want a plan that's been cobbled together to win political favor. This cannot turn into another long-term military deployment with no clear plan."
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said Bush "got off to a good start tonight, but now he must stand up to right-wing members of his own party who are working to block Senate action." He called on Bush to "denounce the misguided approach of House Republicans" who won passage of a a tough immigration bill that would erect fences along the Mexican border and treat people who sneak across as felons to be deported.
Bush said the nation has more than doubled the size of the Border Patrol during his presidency and has sent home about 6 million people entering the United States illegally. Still, he said, that has not been enough.
"For decades, the United States has not been in complete control of its borders," the president said. "As a result, many who want to work in our economy have been able to sneak across our border, and millions have stayed."
He called for enactment of a guest worker program to allow immigrants to take low-paying jobs, and he said employers must be held to account for hiring illegal immigrants. He said that a tamperproof identification card for workers would "leave employers with no excuse" for violating the law.
And he stressed that those who want to earn citizenship should have to assimilate into society, learn English, pay fines for breaking the law and pay back taxes.
"What I have just described is not amnesty," Bush said. "It is a way for those who have broken the law to pay their debt to society and demonstrate the character that makes a good citizen."
The president's call for tougher border security is part of a broader plan to overhaul a system that he has described as inhumane, with desperate foreigners risking their lives for a chance to earn U.S. wages. The issue raises emotions on all sides, with many Americans and influential conservatives in Congress angry that foreigners are taking jobs and draining resources across the country.
A bill that passed the House last year had no provisions for worker permits or citizenship and instead would increase criminal penalties for illegal immigrants and construct 700 miles of fencing.
Bush addressed some of his comments to lawmakers, calling on the Senate to act by the end of the month so a compromise can be reached with the House. "I want to speak directly to Members of the House and the Senate: An immigration reform bill needs to be comprehensive, because all elements of this problem must be addressed together, or none of them will be solved at all."