WASHINGTON—President Bush on Monday renewed his bid to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, pitting himself against challenges that range from his declining popularity to enduring divisions on Capitol Hill.
With political time running out, Bush chose a border backdrop for his latest immigration offensive. In Yuma, Ariz., he called on Congress to pass immigration legislation that he said was important to the national interest and "a matter of deep conviction for me."
As in the past, he didn't unveil details but outlined a broad set of priorities that include a temporary guest-worker program and a path to eventual citizenship for those pay substantial fines, learn English and hold steady employment.
"It's important for people not to give up, no matter how hard it looks from a legislative perspective," the president said, standing in front of uniformed Border Patrol agents.
Bush, a former Texas governor rooted in the bicultural Southwest, has pressed for a sweeping immigration overhaul since early in his presidency. But he has run into opposition from within his own Republican Party. His hopes seemingly brightened after Democrats seized control of Congress in last November's elections, but the outlook for passage remains uncertain, in part because of his plummeting political capital.
The president's job performance stood at 59 percent when he called for immigration revisions in January 2004. But only 38 percent of Americans surveyed now approve of his job performance, according to the most recent Gallup Poll.
The downturn is largely because of disenchantment over the four-year-old Iraq war. But the resentful public mood has eroded his power on a broad front as the lame-duck president heads into his final 21 months in the White House.
The public zeal for overhauling immigration law also seemingly has weakened. In March 2005, an estimated 500,000 advocates of immigration revision marched in Los Angeles. Last weekend, a similar march drew an estimated 10,000.
Although one-third of Americans surveyed in January said it was "extremely important" for Congress to deal with immigration, it lagged far behind such issues as Iraq, terrorism, health care and the economy. Only 5 percent of Americans surveyed now call immigration their top priority.
"Forging a bipartisan consensus is providing harder than ever this year, and ... it would be all too easy for this debate to fragment along party lines," said Tamar Jacoby, an immigration-overhaul advocate who monitors the issue for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research center.
Although Democratic leaders in both houses of Congress have endorsed Bush's call for comprehensive immigration restructuring, the president still must forge a strong bipartisan coalition on one of the nation's most divisive issues. Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California said "50 or 60" Republicans in the House of Representatives would have to be won over for any comprehensive bill to survive.
Many House Republicans remain openly hostile to Bush's plan, a position shared by a number of conservative and moderate Democrats whose constituents are calling for a crackdown on illegal immigrants.
The mood seems friendlier in the Senate, which passed a comprehensive bill last year that embraced key elements of Bush's initiative. Bush administration officials have been meeting quietly with key lawmakers in both chambers in an attempt to find a consensus that could win acceptance.
The only major immigration measure introduced thus far is a House bill co-sponsored by Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., which includes a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship after illegal immigrants briefly leave the United States and return through a port of entry.
White House officials have floated several proposals in their discussions with Republican lawmakers, including $3,500 for guest-worker visa fees and fines of up to $10,000 for illegal immigrants seeking permanent residency and eventual citizenship.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe declined to elaborate on specifics, saying "there are a lot of proposals floating around out there." Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who chairs the House immigration subcommittee, described the steep fees as deal-breakers. But she said the White House legislative staff had assured her they were merely talking points and wouldn't be part of a final proposal.
Lofgren, whose subcommittee will be the starting point for immigration debate in the House, has scheduled a series of hearings beginning next week.
Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who has led Republican opposition to Bush's plan and is running for president on the issue, called Bush's commitment to border security a "halfhearted attempt" to make a case "for his favorite thing," a guest-worker program.
"There's really nothing much to say, because we've heard it all before," he said.
The categories that Bush said must be addressed in an immigration overhaul are border security, a temporary guest-worker program, resolving the status of undocumented immigrants, cracking down on employers of illegal immigrants and assimilating immigrants into American culture.
Bush commended Border Patrol agents for their fight to control illegal immigration and said his administration's efforts were paying off. The size of the Border Patrol will nearly double by the time Bush leaves office, from 9,000 agents to more than 13,000, he said. The increase in manpower, he said, has contributed to a 30 percent drop in the number of apprehensions on the southern border this year.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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