CRAWFORD, Texas – Trying to unify a fractious Republican Party headed to midterm elections with wide differences over how to best deal with illegal immigration, President Bush was in Tucson, Ariz., on Monday to say America shouldn't have to choose between a welcoming society and a lawful one.
Speaking to an audience at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Bush said law enforcement is a major aspect of border patrol.
"Securing our border is essential to securing our homeland. And I want to thank all of those who are working around the clock to defend our border, to enforce our laws and to uphold the values of the United States of America. America is grateful to those on the front lines of enforcing the border," Bush said in the first of two speeches in two days on the topic.
But good security must also be backed by good laws, the president said. When he signed the Homeland Security Department budget surrounded by Arizona lawmakers last month, he approved $2.3 billion to tighten the borders and $3.7 billion to track down illegal immigrants and hold them until they are deported. He also increased resources to hike the number of agents.
Funding for border security has increased by 60 percent since Bush first took office, a sum that has resulted in more illegals being stopped and returned.
"Our border agents have used that funding and apprehend and send home more than 4.5 million people coming into our country illegally, including more than 350,000 with criminal records," Bush said.
In an effort to report what the United States has achieved so far, Bush outlined a three-pronged approach to illegal immigration that includes returning illegals to their homes more quickly, stronger detainment plans and larger law enforcement efforts along the border.
One of the plans announced by Bush is an expansion of "interior repatriation," a term that means returning illegal immigrants from Mexico to the interior of their country, rather than returning them just over the other side of the border.
More than 85 percent of the illegal immigrants entering the United States are Mexican, Bush said, and most of them are escorted back across the border within 24 hours.
Bush said when Mexican immigrants are flown back to Mexico and then bussed to their hometowns in the interior part of the country, they find it harder to make a second trek north to the border.
"We're going to expand interior repatriation," Bush said. "We want to make it clear [that] when they violate U.S. immigration laws they are going to be sent home and they are going to stay at home."
Bush also said more work needs to be done to return non-Mexican illegal immigrants to their home countries. He said current detention facilities don't have enough beds so four of every five non-Mexican illegal immigrants are released and expected to return to a hearing. Seventy-five percent of them — or 130,000 of the 160,000 non-Mexicans apprehended last year — did not.
"This practice of catch and release has been the government's policy for decades. It is an unwise policy, and we're going to end it," Bush said.
He added that more beds will be added to detention facilities so that more people can be held.
"We're also working to process illegal immigrants through the system more quickly so we can return them home faster and free up bed space for others," he said, adding that the "expedited removal" process allows illegals to be deported in fewer than 32 days.
Bush said he also wants to end the current law that requires federal officers to release people crossing the border illegally if their home countries don't take them back in a certain period of time. He said the law allows murderers, rapists, child molesters and other violent criminals onto the street.
"That law doesn't work when it comes time to enforcing the border. And it needs to be changed," Bush said. "This undermines our border security. It undermines the work these good folks are doing. And the United States Congress needs to pass legislation to end these senseless rules."
Over the past dozen years, Arizona has become a hot spot for illegal entries. The border patrol made only 10 percent of its arrests in Arizona in 1990. By 2000, that figure had risen to 37 percent.
Bush said some of the changes include expediting paperwork and increasing the number of flights carrying illegal immigrants back home. He said the new Homeland Security Department budget increases the number of border agents by 1,000 officers, raising the number of officers from 9,500 in 2001 to 12,500 in 2005.
He added that Tucson agents are adding using infrared cameras and unmanned aerial probes from the ground. The additional technology was boosted by a $139 million appropriation in the Homeland Security Department budget.
The Arizona Border Control Initiative launched in 2004 also integrates manpower, technology and infrastructure, he said.
"In the first year of this initiative — now, listen to this; listen to how hard these people are working here -- agents in Arizona apprehended nearly 500,000 illegal immigrants, a 42 percent increase over the previous year. We've captured a half million pounds of marijuana, prosecuted more than 400 people suspected of human smuggling, and seized more than $7 million in cash," Bush said.
Rewarding Bad Behavior?
The president said he also wants to lure illegal aliens into registering with the government under a guest worker program that matches people with jobs for three years, then send them back to their original countries.
The plan would create tamper-proof identification cards for temporary legal workers to improve worksite enforcement. It would also allow immigration agents to concentrate on illegals with motives other than trying to earn a living wage.
But politically, the proposal has been a problem for the president because it looks like amnesty to some conservatives. Bush said he would not reward illegals for breaking the law.
"The program I propose would not create an automatic path to citizenship. It wouldn't provide amnesty. I oppose amnesty," Bush said.
David Aguilar, who's the chief of the Border Patrol at the office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection of the Department of Homeland Security, said a "properly-managed" guest worker program would give border patrol and immigration agents better opportunities to coordinate law enforcement.
Arizona Republican Sen. John Kyl, who has sponsored an immigration bill close to the president's plan, said the carrot-and-stick approach is what gets illegals to stop hiding.
"The enforcement will be so stringent that any employer who tries to employ them, and [illegals], will be caught. They wouldn't be able to return to this country or even try to apply and get in to this country for a period of 10 years and employers would be severely punished," Kyl told FOX News.
Some skeptics add that if illegals are placed at the back of the line for jobs while they apply for legal status, they won't have much incentive to register. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., have offered legislation to give illegal aliens in the United States visas for up to six years. After that, they must either leave the United States or be in the pipeline for a green card, which indicates lawful permanent residency.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who has been working with Kyl and others on a guest worker plan, said she would prefer to send illegals home and have them apply to enter through proper channels.
"Certainly we need to assure that we know who is in this country. I think a guest worker program is good. But I don't think amnesty is good ... it just encourages more people to come in and wait it out," Hutchison said.
"We cannot encourage people to come illegally, wait it out and then get into a legal trap. We have to reward people who come in legally. We do need to have certain types of workers from all over the world ... but we have to know who is in this country," Hutchison said.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told FOX News that it would be virtually impossible to send back to their home countries the 10 million to 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
"The cost of identifying all those people and sending them back would be stupendous. It would be billions and billions of dollars," Chertoff said, adding that the guest worker program would presumably siphon off a portion of the illegals who would register with the government, allowing law enforcement to focus its resources on illegals who don't want to follow government guidelines.
Meanwhile, Bush is also getting resistance from industries that rely on foreign workers. They say illegals have become a significant part of the economy. About half the nation's nearly 2 million farm workers are illegal immigrants, and they were in such short supply last year that farmers in California had to extend the harvest season and still lost crops.
The Downside to Unchecked Crossings
Security proponents say that because more than 700,000 illegals entered the country with little deterrence in 2004, primarily through the Southwestern states, Al Qaeda could exploit holes in the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has sponsored legislation requiring that the secretaries of defense and homeland security cooperate on border patrols. The homeland security secretary would also receive expanded powers to combat the influx of illegal immigrants.
"Even if they get captured, there's no harm done, because they would be captured, and they would be released, and they can try it again. So that's why it's so important that we do detain those who are captured coming across the border, and those who are detained from countries other than Mexico, the 'OTMs,' as they're called. They would be sent back to their nation of origin, and any nation that doesn't cooperate with us, we would have the right to stop their nationals from entering this country, even on a legal basis," King said.
In August, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano declared a state of emergency in order to get federal funds to help handle the influx of illegal immigrants and the crime that followed.
At the time, Napolitano announced that the state Department of Public Safety would create a new detail of officers to work with southern Arizona law enforcement agencies to target vehicle theft, a crime often linked to transporting of illegal immigrants.
She also designated $1.5 million for four border counties' law enforcement agencies to add dozens more officers to combat other border-related crime.
That came before U.S. border patrol agents working the Arizona-Mexico border reported twice as many violent attacks in the 12 months ending in September than a year earlier.
The Yuma and Tucson sectors recorded 365 assaults on agents. Nationwide, agents were assaulted 687 times, according to the latest records. All but one of those attacks took place on the border with Mexico.
A spokesman for the border patrol told FOX News that the escalating border violence reflects the influence of criminal gangs and the large profits made from smuggling migrants workers into the United States — as much as $2,000 per person.
"The reason for the increase is because we have a lot more agents out there. We have 2,400 agents, and we're making it a lot more difficult [to enter]. We're frustrating their efforts because we have a constant presence along the borders," said border agent Jose Garza.
Law enforcement officials recently told Congress that Mexican gangs are getting more aggressive in their efforts to smuggle people and drugs, and smugglers are hiring gangs armed with assault rifles and other weapons to protect their trade.
While in Tucson, Bush received briefings from Customs and Border Protection personnel about the ongoing efforts to plug the holes in border control. He heads to El Paso, Texas, on Tuesday for similar briefings and another speech.
FOX News' Wendell Goler, James Rosen and Julie Kirtz contributed to this report.