WASHINGTON – A growing number of governors, along the border and beyond, are sharpening their complaints about the flood of immigrants pouring into their states, pushing the Bush administration and Congress for action.
Republicans and Democrats alike on Sunday said they planned to bring the concerns to President Bush and his Cabinet in private meetings this week, bringing a front-line security worry of a different order than the latest Washington obsessions on ports and eavesdropping.
"This is a national issue," said Democrat Janet Napolitano of Arizona, where 500,000 attempts to illegally cross the border were turned back last year -- and an untold number got through. Nationally there are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants draining government resources. "We're absorbing through taxpayer dollars the incarceration costs, health care costs, education costs," Napolitano said.
Immigration was one contentious issue among many as more than 40 top state leaders gathered for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association. Governors also hope to get attention on the National Guard, where they fear cuts, and on Medicaid and welfare.
Bush was hosting the governors at a formal White House dinner Sunday evening.
In states as far from the southern border as Utah, Missouri, Tennessee and Vermont, governors said immigrants are costing states dollars and spurring state legislation. All agree the answer lies in Washington and hope to provide a push as Congress weighs several competing bills.
"It's important to come together as governors with a single voice to give some direction," said Republican Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah. "We deal with these issues day in and day out."
Western governors have put together a multipoint plan that asks for tougher border enforcement that makes better use of technology, improvements in the visa system, adoption of a guest worker program and working with Mexico and other Latin America countries to tackle the root economic causes that send millions north looking for work.
"The notion of being opposed to it, but turning a blind eye to it, doesn't make sense," said Democrat Phil Bredesen of Tennessee.
The pressure has been rising in recent months. In Texas, there was an armed standoff last month between state authorities and apparent drug smugglers wearing Mexican military-style uniforms.
In Minnesota, Republican Tim Pawlenty wants the state to track immigrants and fine employers who knowingly hire immigrants. Last year, illegal immigration spurred Napolitano and Democrat Bill Richardson of New Mexico to declare states of emergency in border counties in each state.
At the same time, governors warn that harsh measures alone would cause severe damage to many states, especially where agriculture depends on immigrant labor. "Our industry really relies on foreign workers to be successful," said Republican Jim Douglas of Vermont, where low unemployment and an aging population makes it hard to find workers for the state's dairy farms.
Two years ago, Bush laid out guidelines for a temporary worker program, but the 2004 elections made the administration and some in Congress reluctant to address it. That year, frustrated members of a Senate committee openly criticized Bush for failing to fight for his own proposal.
The House passed an immigration enforcement bill last year that called for building fences on the U.S.-Mexican border, allowing local law officials to enforce immigration laws, and requiring employers to verify the legal status of their employees.
Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has told lawmakers the Senate will begin considering immigration legislation March 27, but Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has predicted the Senate would not consider immigration reform until April or possibly later.
Governors also spoke as one on their worries about a Pentagon plan to restructure the Army National Guard that many warn will leave the states with ability to respond to homegrown disaster and emergencies, whether they are floods in the Midwest, forest fires out West or hurricanes along the Gulf Coast.
All 50 governors signed a letter earlier this month to Bush opposing the plan. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld scheduled a private lunch with the governors on Monday to discuss their concerns.