With a call Monday for a "practical answer" to dealing with illegal immigrants already in the US, President Bush did what Congress's Democratic leadership had urged him to do: go first.
By stepping out front on immigration reform, the president signaled his readiness to take on an issue many here see as toxic, roiling lawmakers of the same party, neighbors on the same street, and the business community.
Whether Mr. Bush can deliver enough votes to push through the broad reform law he wants is what Democrats are asking, knowing he has been battered by the Iraq war and has lost influence even within his own party. Democrats say he needs at least 25 Republicans in the Senate and 70 in the House for it to have a shot at passing – and for them to bring a bill to the floor.
Bush's proposal – the product of weeks of negotiation with GOP senators – would require immigrants in the United States illegally to return to their home countries and pay what Bush called a "meaningful penalty" to qualify to work legally in the US or apply for citizenship. It also would create a temporary guestworker program.
Bush laid out his argument in support of that plan Monday, during a stop at a newly fortified border crossing in Yuma, Ariz. His aim: to win over those lawmakers who see eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants as a quasi-amnesty, a reward for breaking the law.
"It is impractical to take the position that, 'Oh, we'll just find the 11 million or 12 million people and send them home.' That's just an impractical position. It's not going to work," Bush said.
Sticking point: those already in US
How to resolve the status of undocumented immigrants already living in America is but one of several sticking points for lawmakers on Capitol Hill – and much of the American public. The guestworker program, too, is expected to be controversial.
Opposition to anything like amnesty for those who entered or stayed in the United States illegally crosses party lines. Nearly half of the House Republican caucus, 96 of 201 lawmakers, are members of the Immigration Reform Caucus, which opposes new guestworker plans or a path to citizenship for those here illegally. Last year, when a Republican-led Congress approved an immigration reform bill that focused on border security and enforcement, only 17 Republicans opposed it.
"For too long, Americans have been force-fed candidates who ignore or mock their valid concerns about the security of our borders, the enforcement of our immigration laws, and the survival of our national heritage," says Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado, who founded the Immigration Reform Caucus and recently launched a presidential bid on a platform of opposition to illegal immigration.
For many Republicans, as well as moderate freshmen Democrats who replaced GOP lawmakers in the 2006 election, a path to citizenship – even with fines and a requirement to return to one's native country before attaining legal status, looks too much like the amnesty policy of the 1980s.
Both the House and Senate passed immigration-reform bills in the last Congress but failed to come to terms on a comprehensive plan. What emerged was a bill to build a fence on the border with Mexico, hire more border patrol agents, and add sensors and cameras to help pinpoint illegal crossers.
Since 2001, the Bush administration has increased the number of border agents from about 9,000 to 13,000.
"The number of people apprehended for illegally crossing our southern border is down by nearly 30 percent this year," Bush said in Yuma. "We're making progress."
Previous efforts to stem illegal immigration failed, he said, because they didn't do enough to secure the borders or give employers "sensible ways" to verify the legal status of the workers they hire.
Democrats are cautious
This year, Democrats control both bodies – thanks mainly to wins by conservative freshmen, many of whom ran campaigns opposed to amnesty for illegal immigrants. That's why they want to be certain Bush can deliver the votes before they'll agree to move the legislation.
While the president didn't give details of his plan, one draft proposal calls for illegal immigrants to pay a $10,000 fine to qualify for a three-year work visa. A leak of this plan prompted a protest rally by undocumented workers and their supporters in Los Angeles last weekend.
Commenting on Bush's speech, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on the president to "work collaboratively and on a bipartisan basis to pass comprehensive immigration reform" and urged him to take up the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act (Strive Act) introduced by Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois and Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona.Unlike leaked versions of the Senate GOP plan, the Strive Act would require undocumented workers to leave the US to regularize their status, but not necessarily that they go to their countries of origin. The House plan also sets a lower fine: $500 for those who want to continue to work in the US under a guestworker program and $1,500 to get on a path to citizenship. Both plans would open a path to citizenship to those in the US before June 1, 2006.
"The president didn't side particularly with one proposal or another. He didn't talk about $10,000 fines, which is good," says Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think tank. "These are going to be hard negotiations, and both sides are going to have to give. He did a good job of generating momentum."While Senate negotiations on a bipartisan bill bogged down in recent weeks, Senate leaders say they will take up some version of immigration reform in the two weeks before the Memorial Day recess, even if it means going back to the bipartisan bill that the Senate passed in the last Congress.If the Senate does produce a bill, Speaker Pelosi could find that she can craft a bipartisan House bill with only 30 or 40 GOP votes, says Ms. Jacoby, who is advising Democrats on the immigration issue.