WASHINGTON – Noting immigrants have shaped America's identity, President Bush said Monday the United States "should not have to choose between being a welcoming society and being a lawful society" when dealing with illegal immigration.
The president also pushed Congress to pass a "guest-worker" program that would let many illegal immigrants already in the United States stay for six years if they have jobs and have stayed out of criminal trouble.
"To keep the promise of America, we must enforce the laws of America. We must also reform those laws," Bush said during a naturalization ceremony for 30 new Americans who took the long and legal path to citizenship. "Nobody benefits when illegal immigrants live in the shadows of society. America needs comprehensive immigration reform."
The border battle intensified on Monday as the Senate kicked off two weeks of debate over an issue that has some Republicans split not only from Democrats, but from Bush, as well.
The Senate was trying to mesh together several immigration reform bills to produce one comprehensive package that aims to deal with the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, which has a midnight deadline for completing a bill, rejected a proposal from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to require humanitarian groups providing food, medical aid and advice to illegal immigrants to register with the Department of Homeland Security. In December, the House voted to make offers of non-emergency aid a felony.
Democrats emerged victorious on several amendments. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., won a measure that would protect humanitarian organizations from prosecution is they provided more than simple emergency aid to such immigrants.
"Charitable organizations, like individuals, should be able to provide humanitarian assistance to immigrants without fearing prosecution," Durbin said.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., prevailed on a proposal to allow an additional 400,000 green cards for future immigrants, regardless of the industry where they find jobs. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., won approval on an 11-5 vote for a five-year program to permit as many as 1.5 million agriculture workers into the country.
"It will provide the agriculture industry with a legal work force and offer agriculture workers a path to citizenship," she said.
The bill sponsored by Cornyn and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., would also let illegal immigrants get temporary work permits for up to five years. They would have to leave the United States but could then apply for legal re-entry.
The committee also approved more than doubling the current force of 11,300 Border Patrol agents in an effort to stem the tide of new undocumented workers arriving daily. It voted to add 2,000 agents next year and 2,400 more annually through 2011.
At the naturalization ceremony, Bush pressed for his guest worker program and noted that immigration is an "emotional topic." Among other things, Bush's program would tighten the borders and increase penalties on employers who hire illegals while letting the illegals get in line to seek citizenship.
"We need to maintain our perspective as we conduct this debate," Bush said during remarks to DAR-Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. "At its core, immigration is a sign of a confident and successful nation. It says something about our country that people around the world are willing to leave their homes and leave the families and risk everything to come to America. Their talent and hard work and freedom have helped make America a leader in the world."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, calls for tougher border security have dominated debate over the hot-button topic of controlling immigration.
"No one should play on people's fears or try to pit neighbors against each other," Bush said. "No one should pretend that immigrants are threats to America's identity because immigrants have shaped America's identity.
"No one should claim that immigrants are a burden on our economy because the work and enterprise of immigrants helps sustain our economy," the president said. "We should not give in to pessimism. If we work together I am confident we can meet our duty to fix our immigration system and deliver a bill that protects our people, upholds our laws and makes our people proud."
But a tough immigration-enforcement bill passed by the House last year has galvanized forces that want worker programs for illegal immigrants already in the country.
"We will not accept enforcement-only approaches," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group.
Immigration advocates rallied Monday at the U.S. Capitol, where dozens of members of the clergy wore handcuffs to protest what they say is the House bill's criminalization of their aid programs for poor immigrants.
"This is not about legislation any more," said Jorge Medina, an immigrant from Honduras now living in Charlotte, N.C. "This is about feelings now. We are Americans, too. We are not from Mars and we are not from the moon."
More than 500,000 people rallied in Los Angeles on Saturday, demanding that Congress abandon the House-passed measures that would make being an undocumented immigrant a felony and erect a 700-mile fence along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border Currently, being in the United States illegally is a civil violation. Similar but smaller protests were held in Dallas, Phoenix, Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio, among other cities.
On Monday, hundreds of demonstrators, many waving U.S. and Mexican flags, marched through Detroit. In Huntington Park, Calif., several hundred high school students walked out of class as protests against an immigration crackdown continued on California's Cesar Chavez Day.
Cornyn called the protests unhelpful, particularly since many of the slogans at the demonstrations carried an anti-American tinge.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, told FOX News on Monday it would be unrealistic to round up and deport the millions of illegal immigrants in the United States. Instead, he said the American government should create a "path toward legalization" based on whether the immigrants are law-abiding, pay taxes, are learning English and are generally good citizens.
"Be realistic — you can't deport them so the best thing you can do is give them a path toward legalization," said Richardson, who last year declared a state of emergency in his state to deal with the huge influx of illegal aliens coming into his state from the south.
He also said the United States should work with Mexico on joint border patrols and "more enforcement on the border that is sadly lacking" now. And Congress needs to boost the number of border patrol agents and equipment to help combat drugs, smuggling and other criminal activity.
Bush on Monday said that during his administration, increased border patrol and security efforts have led to more than 6 million illegal immigrants being deported, including about 4,000 with other criminal records. He said "expedited removal" of illegals from countries other than Mexico (also known as OTMs) is now down to a processing time of 21 days. He also noted that enforcement funding has increased 42 percent under his watch.
Senators up for re-election this year are being forced by the debate to juggle the demand from voters for tighter borders to keep out terrorists and businesses who look to the tide of immigrants to help fill jobs.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Sunday his panel will get a bill to the full Senate before Tuesday, even if it has to work "very, very late into the night."
Does Reform Equal Amnesty?
Whether or not the committee produces a bill, Majority Leader Bill Frist plans to open two weeks of Senate debate on the issue Tuesday. Frist, R-Tenn., has offered a measure that would punish employers who hire illegal immigrants and provide more visas. It sidesteps the issue of whether to let illegal immigrants already here stay.
In a radio interview with Tony Snow on "FOX News Talks," Frist said that he didn't believe citizenship should be awarded to people who came to the United States illegally.
"You've hit upon it in one phrase — 'came here illegally.' If we are to be founded on rule of law, to have 11 million people here who broke law be rewarded all of the sudden, its unfair to those waiting for green cards at home," Frist said.
Frist also said he thought it is impractical to have a fence thousands of miles long, along the U.S.-Mexico border. Frist said his bill would include a "virtual wall."
"In some areas it would be a triple-fence wall, but in some you may have unmanned aerial vehicles, infrared censors, physical monitoring," he said.
Employers and immigration advocates prefer a bill drafted by Sens. Kennedy and John McCain, R-Ariz., that would allow illegal immigrants to become eligible for permanent residency after working for six years. Both McCain and Frist are likely candidates for the Republican presidential nomination next year.
Some are wary of such bills and say they're basically amnesty for people who are in the United States illegally.
"If you say, 'you can be here, you can do that, you can come across the border without our permission, and you will be able to stay — and, yes, there will be some, you know, a little fine or whatever,' that's — it's not deportation, it is amnesty. And what it does is send a horrible message," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.
But Richardson, who supports the McCain-Kennedy bill, said that legislation is a far cry from amnesty, with provisions that include making sure immigrants learn English, pay fines and work jobs Americans don't want.
"I'm totally against amnesty. Amnesty would be saying, 'OK, guys, you can stay, you're citizens,'" he told FOX News. "It' going to be messy but this is a very, very difficult wedge, political issues."
"I believe granting amnesty would be unfair" to people who have "played by the rules" to await citizenship, Bush said Monday. Saying it would encourage future waves of illegal immigration and would further threaten law enforcement, the president added that he "firmly" opposes amnesty.
Aides to Specter, Cornyn, Kyl, Kennedy and McCain spent much of the congressional recess last week trying to find a compromise that would stave off Frist's bill.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday that it's too early to talk about a final piece of legislation and whether Bush will veto a bill that doesn't include a guest worker program. Saying there's a long way to go on the legislative process, McClellan added that it's important the White House and Congress work together to come up with a comprehensive solution to a broken immigration system.
FOX News' Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.