WASHINGTON – President Bush, bracing for more street protests and a Senate showdown on immigration reform, called Saturday for legislation that does not force America to choose between being a welcoming society and a lawful one.
"America is a nation of immigrants, and we're also a nation of laws," Bush said in his weekly radio address about the emotional immigration issue that has driven a wedge in his party.
Bush sides with business leaders who want legislation to let some immigrants stay in the country and work for a set period of time. Others, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, say national security concerns should drive immigration reform.
On Monday, Bush is to attend a naturalization ceremony in Washington where he will watch a group of new citizens raise their right hands and swear to uphold the laws of the United States. Later in the week, immigration likely will surface as a topic in Cancun, Mexico, where Bush is scheduled to meet with Mexico's President Vicente Fox.
Congress is considering bills that would make it a felony to be illegally in the United States, impose new penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants and erect fences along one-third of the U.S.-Mexican border. The proposals have angered many Hispanics, a key voting bloc both parties are courting.
Thousands of people across the country protested Friday against legislation cracking down on the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Demonstrators in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Atlanta staged school walkouts, marches and work stoppages.
Bush wants Congress to create a program to allow foreigners to gain legal status for a set amount of time to do specific jobs. When the time is up, they would be required to return home without an automatic path to citizenship.
"As we debate the immigration issue, we must remember there are hardworking individuals, doing jobs that Americans will not do, who are contributing to the economic vitality of our country," he said.
Frist, R-Tenn., says he understands the economic concerns being expressed by businesses, but his focus is on the main concern voiced by the social conservatives: national security.
Frist's bill sidesteps the question of temporary work permits. It would tighten borders, add Border Patrol agents and punish employers who hire illegal immigrants. He has left open the possibility of replacing his legislation with a measure being drafted by the Senate Judiciary Committee that includes a guest worker program.
Reid, backed by labor unions, has said he will do all he can, including filibuster, to thwart Frist's legislation. Clinton has said legislation seeking to criminalize undocumented immigrants is not in line with Republicans' stated support for faith and values and "would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself."
Appealing to those who favor strict border enforcement, Bush noted that more border agents are being hired, and infrared cameras and unmanned aerial vehicles are helping them do their jobs.
Moreover, Bush said the government is trying to step up enforcement and end a decades-old practice of releasing illegal immigrants soon after capture because there is not enough space in detention centers.
"We're adding more beds so we can hold the people we catch, and we're reducing the time it takes to send them back home," he said. "When illegal immigrants know they will be caught and sent home, they will be less likely to break the rules, and our immigration system will be more orderly and secure."
He emphasized that the temporary worker program he's proposed would not provide amnesty to illegal immigrants in the United States. "For the sake of justice and for the sake of border security, I firmly oppose amnesty," Bush said.