WASHINGTON—President Bush called Monday night for sending as many as 6,000 National Guard troops to help protect the U.S.-Mexican border, a proposal that highlighted the first prime-time Oval Office TV address of his presidency devoted to a domestic issue.
The prominence that Bush gave to the growing challenge of immigration reflected the intense emotional debate being waged about it across the country and in Congress as November's midterm elections approach.
"We do not yet have full control of the border, and I am determined to change that," Bush said in a 17-minute address to a national audience.
The president is gambling that beefing up security at the border now will make it easier for conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives—who champion strict border controls and harsh punishment for violators—to accept broader legislation later this year, including a guest worker program and a path toward legalization for many illegal immigrants already here.
Some people involved in policing the border voiced skepticism of Bush's Guard deployment plan.
Chris Simcox, the president of the self-appointed Minuteman border-surveillance group, denounced the deployment plan as "a vacant political scheme during an election year."
T.J. Bonner, the president of the National Border Patrol Council, the 10,500-member union that represents non-supervisory Border Patrol agents, said the president's proposal will be only "marginally effective" because Guard troops would be used only in support roles and not directly in law enforcement.
Sheriff Tomas S. Herrera of Eagle Pass, Texas, which sits across the Rio Grande from Piedras Negras, Mexico, said he opposes Guard deployment.
"The National Guards are good people, but they're trained for something else," he said. "You can't train them overnight to know the terrain, the community and the people who come across the border."
Bush said he plans to send as many as 6,000 Guard troops—less than 2 percent of the Guard's 440,000 members—to southern border states for up to one year beginning early next month. The troop level would shrink to 3,000 the following year as the Border Patrol adds 6,000 agents by 2008, according to White House officials. The Border Patrol already has grown from 9,000 to 12,000 agents during Bush's presidency.
Under the plan, Border Patrol agents would continue to be in charge of apprehension and detention operations, while Guard troops would be assigned to support tasks that include surveillance, intelligence and infrastructure.
White House officials stressed that Bush isn't federalizing the Guard troops, noting that they'll be under the control of the border-state governors who receive them.
"The United States is not going to militarize the southern border," Bush said. "Mexico is our neighbor, and our friend. We will continue to work cooperatively to improve security on both sides of the border."
In addition, Bush:
_Vowed to employ more technology to patrol the border, by constructing high-tech fences in urban corridors and new patrol roads and barriers in rural areas and by using motion sensors and infrared cameras.
_Asked Congress for $327 million to end the so-called Catch-and-Release program that allows arrested illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico to be released into the U.S. population when there's no room for them in holding facilities. The money would add more beds to the facilities.
_Renewed his call for the creation of tamper-proof identity cards for legal immigrants that would give employers no excuses for hiring illegal ones.
Throughout his speech, Bush took pains to emphasize both border enforcement and mercy for immigrants.
"We are a nation of laws, and we must enforce our laws," the president said. "We are also a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition, which has strengthened our country in so many ways. These are not contradictory goals—America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time. ...
"We must always remember that real lives will be affected by our debates and decisions, and that every human being has dignity and value no matter what their citizenship papers say."
Bush's National Guard proposal received mixed reviews on Capitol Hill, where Republicans generally supported him and Democrats were critical.
House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, applauded Bush for "providing extra resources and extra security personnel" to help stop the flow of illegal immigration, but he said nothing about Bush's guest worker proposal.
"House Republicans have responded to the concerns of the American people by passing a strong border security bill that reflects our commitment to re-establishing basic respect for our immigration laws and sealing our border against illegal entry," he said.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Bush's speech "helpful," but said that "on the possible use of the National Guard, we will have to legislate carefully to circumscribe the Guard's duties so we don't get them involved in law enforcement or activities which are inappropriate."
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said that "President Bush has overtaxed, overused and underfunded" the National Guard by turning to it for help in Iraq and after Hurricane Katrina.
"I support doing whatever it takes to secure our borders," Reid said, "but for five-and-one-half years, this is an issue President Bush has largely ignored." Reid challenged Bush to reject the House Republicans' punishment-based bill.
At least one influential Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said that Bush's plan won't solve the immigration problem.
"A few steps, including calling out the National Guard, significant though they may be, will not change the pervasive illegality of our current immigration system to one that works," said Sessions, a critic of the Senate immigration bill. "And the American people know it."
Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, the co-chair of the House Border Caucus, called the Guard deployment a "bad idea." He said business leaders in his district complain that it will chill cross-border commerce.
"It's going to intimidate people from coming across and buying. Businesses are going to be hurt," Ortiz said.
Ortiz also said that his constituents fear that a military presence on the border could endanger area residents. They recalled the 1997 slaying of 18-year-old Esequiel Hernandez Jr., who was shot near his home in Redford, Texas, by a U.S. Marine who was assisting the Border Patrol in drug surveillance.
Marine officials said Hernandez was shot after he fired his .22 rifle on a four-man team of Marines, but his family said the teenager was carrying the weapon to protect a goat herd from coyotes.
"This is what people are afraid of," Ortiz said. "They're afraid of more incidents. There'll be heightened tensions in border communities. There'll be mistakes made."
The Senate renewed debate Monday on comprehensive immigration legislation. Its bill differs significantly from a measure passed last December by the House of Representatives, which emphasizes border security and punitive measures against undocumented workers and the employers who hire them.
The Senate bill would allow illegal immigrants who've been in the United States for at least five years to move toward legal status by working for six years, paying back taxes, passing background checks, learning English and paying $2,000 fines.
It also would create a guest worker program that would permit 325,000 foreigners to enter the United States to work. A guest worker would receive a three-year visa that could be renewed for another three years. Such workers also could apply for permanent residence after having work visas for four years.
On security, the Senate bill would authorize hiring 4,000 border agents and 10,000 immigration enforcement officers.
If the Senate bill passes, as expected, future House-Senate negotiations to reconcile the two measures are expected to be difficult.
The political struggle over immigration reflects the public's unease. Last week, a Newsweek magazine poll found that:
_59 percent of Americans consider illegal immigration a "very serious" problem.
_70 percent said they thought illegal immigrants weaken the U.S. economy because they don't pay taxes but use public services.
_66 percent opposed a proposal to build a 700-mile-long fence along the U.S. Mexican border, saying it would cost too much and wouldn't keep illegal immigrants out.
_61 percent disapproved of Bush's handling of immigration.
_45 percent said the Democratic Party is more likely to make the right decision on immigration, while 29 percent said Republicans would.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll late last month found that 61 percent of Americans favor letting illegal immigrants who lack work permits stay in the United States as long as they pass security checks, meet certain conditions and pay taxes.
(The Newsweek poll was a nationwide survey of 1,007 adults taken May 11-12, 2006. Its error margin was plus or minus 3 percentage points. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll was a nationwide survey of 1,005 adults taken April 21-24. Its error margin was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.)
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Steven Thomma and James Kuhnhenn contributed. Montgomery covers Washington for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050515 BUSH border
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BUSH
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