PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – President Bush urged Congress on Monday to pass legislation that would allow more foreigners to work legally in the United States in a push for immigration reform.
"We are a nation of immigrants," Bush said during a speech on immigration reform in Irvine, Calif. “We have had a grand tradition in this country of welcoming people in our society.”
Bush, ending a four-day trip to the West Coast, said he realized immigration is a sensitive issue and called for stronger border security, better tools for border enforcers and a temporary guest worker program.
“I know this is an emotional debate. We are talking about decent human beings that need to be treated with respect,” Bush said.
"You can be a nation of law and be a compassionate nation at the same time," he added.
The president said a comprehensive immigration reform plan needs to get off the Senate floor and into a conference committee with House negotiators. Congress returned to the nation's capital on Monday after a two-week recess. The House passed a bill in December that is tough on border security and does not address guest workers.
Bush stressed that the United States cannot allow people to break the law but also cannot send the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants back to their home countries. Since the president took office, more than 6 million illegal aliens have been stopped at the border and repatriated.
A large part of Bush's immigration reform plan calls for a temporary guest worker program that would give temporary guest worker permits to foreigners in low-paying jobs with the intention that they will go home one day. He was pushing his idea in a state that has seen massive protests in recent weeks calling for immigrant rights.
“I’m for a temporary worker program that says to a person ‘here is a tamper-proof card that says you can do a job that an American won’t do, fill a need,’” Bush said.
The federal government has to enforce the border and provide modern equipment for border control agents, Bush said, adding that an increase in border control agents is helping but more needs to be done.
“We’re now beginning to modernize our border so that the people we’ve asked to enforce our border are able to do so,” Bush said.
Bush said he opposes the idea of automatic citizenship but supports allowing an illegal immigrant to get in line and meet requirements for citizenship.
“There is a line of people waiting to become legal through the green card process. Get in line, but in the back, not the front,” Bush said. He added that the Senate "had an interesting approach by saying that if you'd been here for five years or less, you're treated one way, and five years or more, you're treated another."
Meanwhile, outside the Orange County hotel where Bush was speaking, several hundred protesters debated both sides of the immigration puzzle.
Some protesters from the Minuteman Project volunteer border patrol group chanted “Go back to Mexico” and “God Bless America” while other demonstrators waved peace signs to protest Bush’s immigration policy, the war in Iraq and the Minuteman group.
Bush also spoke about the War on Terror, saying the United States will win the war in Iraq and “complete the mission.”
“I believe we’re going to win in Iraq,” Bush said.
While the president was speaking, federal officials announced the arrest of 183 illegal aliens in Florida in a sweep that law enforcement spokesmen say is part of a nationwide strategy of protecting the borders. Some 130 of those arrested were fugitives from criminal charges ranging from sexual assault to drug trafficking, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said.
Debate Resumes in Congress
Lawmakers on either side of the political aisle have wide-ranging views on how to solve the problem of the nation's influx of illegal aliens, realizing their actions could impact midterm congressional elections about six months away.
Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Sunday he believes Congress will be able to work out differences and pass a bill. Specter, R-Pa., pledged to have legislation ready for debate soon after lawmakers return.
Specter said Democrats and Republicans have to agree on a list of amendments to consider. He acknowledged that even if senators pass a bill with a guest worker program, it will be tough to work that out with House members who passed a bill that would impose criminal penalties on those who try to sneak into this country and would build up fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"It would be a tough conference, candidly, with the House, but we were able to work through the Patriot Act although there were big disagreements," Specter told a cable news channel.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he wants an immigration bill passed by Memorial Day. In a gesture to conservative critics of the measure, Republican leadership aides said last week that Frist will seek roughly $2 billion in immediate additional spending for border protection in an effort to win GOP converts to a program that many opponents say amounts to amnesty.
Provisions in the Senate compromise being debated would allow for eventual citizenship for many of the illegal immigrants now working and living inside the United States.
Appearing with Specter, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said it is possible the Senate can pass a bill if "the administration will weigh in and the president will take a leadership role on this."
"We need a bipartisan bill. We need a comprehensive bill," Levin said. "It's very possible we can get one, providing we address all of the problems and not just one or two of them, since it's obvious our system is now broken."
Bush said he wants lawmakers to put politics aside in the immigration debate.
“I’m confident that if we can do that, we’ll come up with a rational plan that will make the country proud,” Bush said.
Bush's four-day stay in California also featured speeches on U.S. competitiveness and his energy plan, meetings with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former President Ford and plenty of time on his bike.
The president's entourage took an overnight detour to Napa Valley so he could bike through the picturesque wine country Saturday, and he rode Sunday morning to a peak overlooking Palm Springs.
Bush was scheduled to make a stop in Las Vegas on his way back to Washington, D.C., to attend a fund-raiser for Republican Rep. Jon Porter at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino.
FOX News' Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.