President's Search for Immigration Middle Ground

ByABC News via via logo

May 16, 2006 — -- The president has laid out a carrot-and-stick approach for controlling illegal immigration, and that includes using up to 6,000 National Guard troops to beef up border security.

Three out of four Americans say they support that idea in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll.

"We do not yet have full control of our border," President Bush said in Monday's primetime speech. "And I am determined to change that."

"It is important for Americans to know that we have enough Guard forces to win the war on terror, respond to natural disasters, and help secure our border."

Democrats and Republicans already have been critical of the proposal -- arguing the Guard is overextended.

"Our Guard and Reserves are stretched dangerously thin, and now we're moving into dangerous weather season," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., in the official Democratic response to the speech.

"Democrats are willing to support any reasonable plan that will secure our borders -- including deploying National Guard troops. … This cannot turn into another long-term military deployment with no clear plan."

The president said Border Patrol agents would take the Guard's place by 2008. He also called for tamper-proof ID cards for immigrants and an end to the so-called catch-and-release program, in which illegal immigrants were often released, but then failed to show up in court.

All of it is tough talk and a clear political gesture meant to persuade conservatives -- especially conservatives in Congress -- to support the other controversial headline in his speech: his support of eventual citizenship for about 12 million immigrants here illegally. Critics call the program amnesty.

"It is neither wise nor realistic to round up millions of people -- many with deep roots in the United States -- and send them across the border," Bush said. "There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant, and a program of mass deportation."

According to the president's plan, illegal immigrants could gain citizenship if they paid a fine for coming here illegally, paid back taxes, and learned English.

The president also stood behind another controversial proposal: a guest worker program.

"A temporary worker program would meet the needs of our economy and it would give honest immigrants a way to provide for their families while respecting the law," he said.

The president's plan tries to straddle both sides of the immigration debate, said Chief Washington Correspondent George Stephanopolous.

"It is a start," he said. "Even the White House officials I spoke with this morning acknowledge that the ice has not yet cracked with those conservatives, particularly in the House of Representatives, who are dead set against any kind of guest worker program. … To them, any plan that does not require illegal immigrants to go home first is amnesty, and they haven't yet moved on that core issue."

Stephanopolous said that the president hoped that the National Guard presence and additional border security would prove to conservatives that his plan was effective. Then, he could start to "open their minds to this broader approach."

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