WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday renewed his call for a guest worker program (search) for immigrants seeking employment in the United States, saying the Border Patrol (search) shouldn't be chasing "goodhearted people who are coming here to work."
Bush has wanted such a program since taking office four years ago. But the idea was sidetracked by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and then left on the sideline because the White House did not want to tackle such a controversial issue during an election year.
Bush faces a tough fight in Congress. He will have to persuade Republicans that his program does not amount to amnesty (search) for the estimated 8 million to 12 million illegal immigrants, and negotiate with Democrats who want any plan to provide workers a path to legal status.
"I fully understand the politics of immigration reform," Bush said at a news conference. "I mean, I was governor of Texas. Right there on the front lines of border politics."
Bush said creating a program where foreigners who want to work can legally enter the country will take some of the pressure off Border Patrol agents whose jobs have taken on greater importance since the terrorist attacks.
"We want our Border Patrol agents chasing crooks and thieves and drug runners and terrorists, not goodhearted people who are coming here to work," he said.
He also said the program will recognize a reality that foreigners are "doing jobs Americans won't do; take the pressure off of employers so they're not having to rely upon false IDs; cut out the coyotes who are the smugglers of these people."
Bush stressed that he does not favor automatic citizenship for immigrant workers.
"If somebody who is here working wants to be a citizen, they can get in line," he said.
Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum (search), said he was encouraged by Bush's comments.
"The bottom line is you have a conservative Republican president with political capital standing up and saying, 'I want to fix the system,"' Sherry said. "That is unprecedented and that could set the stage for historic reform."
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (search), said Bush's view of the issue is provincial.
"It's kind of embarrassing sometimes when the president keeps claiming he has special insight into immigration because he was governor of Texas and he doesn't. The mantra that immigrants do jobs Americans won't do is widely believed, but is economic gibberish," said Krikorian, whose group advocates for less immigration and tougher enforcement.