Five years after he took office and amid much rumbling that he hasn't followed through on his promise to crack down on illegal immigrants, President Bush is now pushing Congress to pass a bill establishing a temporary guest worker program that will help curb the flow of illegal aliens crossing the southern border.
But one thing his program is not, the president stresses, is the dreaded amnesty, the word that stops debate about illegal immigration on Capitol Hill.
"There's a lot of opinions on this proposal, I understand," Bush said Monday during a speech in Tucson, Ariz., one of the states at the forefront of the border battle.
"But we will not be able to effectively enforce our immigration laws" until a type of temporary worker program is put in place, he said. "The program that I propose would not create an automatic path to citizenship. It wouldn't provide for amnesty. I oppose amnesty. Rewarding those who have broken the law would encourage others to break the law and keep pressure on our border."
He emphasized that again during remarks he made Tuesday after touring the southern border in El Paso, Texas.
"Amnesty would be a mistake. Granting amnesty to people who come to our country illegally would invite others to come to our country illegally," Bush said.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist on Monday said border security reform legislation will be a priority item on the Senate's calendar in February. This year's homeland security appropriations bill included $10 billion for border security efforts and provides for another 1,000 border agents, pushing the total to 12,500.
"We can no longer compromise America's border security, allowing potentially dangerous individuals and materials to slip freely across the border and into our country," Frist, a Tennessee Republican. said. "We must boldly address the challenges of border security first, which is why I will start the debate in the Senate with a measure that aggressively strengthens and improves enforcement at the border."
Lipstick on a Pig
Some Republicans, like Rep. J.D. Hayworth of Arizona, think the issue of enforcement needs to be taken up first and immediately, while dealing with any sort of worker program can come later. They point to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, in which amnesty for farm workers and other illegal workers was carried out but sanctions against employers as well as other enforcement measures was not.
"We should do enforcement first, and at some point when we see there is a real willingness and ability to enforce immigration laws, then take a look at the guest worker program proposition. We're talking a period of years," Hayworth spokesman Larry VanHoose told FOXNews.com.
The bill proposed by Hayworth would, among other things, authorize U.S. military forces to aid the effort to strengthen the nation's borders, add 10,000 new border patrol agents and 1,250 officers at ports of entry. It also authorizes $2.5 billion to equip border officials with force-multiplying surveillance and detection technology.
"The congressman is very much opposed to doing a guest worker program before the federal government has proven it will enforce current laws first," VanHoose said. "There's a lot of divergent pieces of this puzzle. We're trying to get something together."
More than 80 House members — mostly Republican — wrote a letter to Bush last month opposing any guest worker program until it's proven that current immigration laws can be enforced.
"Today an estimated 12 to 20 million illegal aliens are in the United States," the letter states. "They know that if they successfully enter the country and find a job, they will likely be able to stay for the rest of their lives because the government has shown little interest in enforcing its own laws."
The idea of a guest worker program also doesn't have the support of many Republicans because as much as the president dresses it up, what this program amounts to, they argue, is nothing short of amnesty.
Bush "started out the speech talking about guest worker; he ended it with guest worker and then described what guest worker meant. And to me, he has got an amnesty component. So what he did is to give us some meat and then slip it between two very old, stale pieces of bread," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who offered support for a guest worker program but only if border enforcement happens first.
"You can put some lipstick on the pig, but it's still a pig. ... Nobody's going to go home, he knows it, everybody knows it. It is an amnesty … concentrate on the enforcement, Mr. President. Concentrate on the enforcement or it won't get anywhere in Congress," Tancredo told FOX News.
Added Michael Cutler, a former INS agent often called to testify on the Hill on immigration reform: "If you found someone sitting in your house uninvited, would you call the cops or give them a job? You'd call the cops. We don't want people to violate our laws and be rewarded for it."
People in Cutler's camp argue that it's unrealistic to think illegal immigrants are going to voluntarily come out of the shadows and register for any type of guest worker program if they know they eventually will have to return to their home country.
Others, however, say an immigration reform package that doesn't address how to manage illegal workers already here is unacceptable.
"It's critical that any immigration reform package include a temporary worker program. Without it, we simply will not be addressing the issue," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has co-sponsored The Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act. Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., have sponsored the companion bill in the Senate.
That measure would basically would allow 400,000 illegal aliens to work in the United States for up to six years. After that, they either must leave or be in the pipeline for a green card, which denotes lawful permanent residency. It also calls for biometric identification for all temporary foreign workers to cut down on document fraud, and stricter penalties for workers and employers who don't abide by the new rules.
The bill is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Service Employees International Union.
A competing bill sponsored by Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona would require undocumented workers to return to their home country to apply for a temporary worker program.
Kennedy spokeswoman Laura Capps said she hopes Bush's nudging on Monday will get the issue moving faster so lawmakers can come together to push through one comprehensive bill.
"Senators Kennedy and McCain have said they're open to their fellow senators on comprehensive reform. … I think we're just interested in moving forward. The president campaigned on this in 2000 and nothing has happened," Capps told FOXNews.com.
That means, addressing both enforcement and current worker issues needs to be dealt with at the same time, she added.
"To say we have to deal with enforcement first, we've tried that, we've done that for the last … 10 years. … We don't believe that's a viable way to approach this challenge," Capps said.
Cracking Down on Employers
The Senate likely will wait until February to take up the controversial issue but the House could take up immigration reform bills as early as next month. Although the temporary worker language may not be in the House-passed version, which likely will deal more with border enforcement, the Senate may add that language later.
"The House plans to vote on this legislation soon — I urge them to pass a good bill," Bush said Monday.
Many stress that enforcement can't only happen at the border but in the country's interior, as well. That means cracking down on businesses hiring illegal immigrants often for pay below the U.S. minimum wage.
"We will enforce those laws throughout our land, better interior enforcement depends on better worksite enforcement," Bush said.
Noting that since he took office, funding for immigration and customs investigators has increased by 44 percent, Bush also cited "Operation Rollback," the largest worksite enforcement case in U.S. history that involved the arrest of hundreds of illegal workers and criminal charges brought against employers like WalMart.
In addition, the Basic Pilot automated program is now available nationwide to businesses that want to verify the identification documents of potential workers, Bush noted.
"Business owners shouldn't have to act like detectives to verify the legal status of their workers," he said.
But critics of the plan say too many loopholes in the Bush plan prevent it from effectively curbing illegal immigration. They wonder how the U.S. government can add on thousands more requests for temporary worker permits when it can't get rid of its current immigration backlog.
"You've got 2,000 agents ... and they're already up to their necks ... so how may people will they really have to do this?" Cutler asked. "This is a boat with a lot of holes in it — people will keep finding strategies to get around the roadblocks."