GLYNCO, Ga.—Firing back at conservative critics, President Bush defended his plan to overhaul immigration laws Tuesday and accused its opponents of "trying to rile up people's emotions" with misinformation.
In an exclusive interview with McClatchy Newspapers, Bush expressed his determination to fight for changes that would let millions of illegal immigrants gain legal status. He cast the debate as a struggle over America's soul and its reputation as a welcoming nation.
"I'm deeply concerned about America losing its soul. Immigration has been the lifeblood of a lot of our country's history," the president said during an interview on Air Force One. "I am worried that a backlash to newcomers would cause our country to lose its great capacity to assimilate newcomers."
Bush underscored his commitment to the proposed overhaul—despite harsh criticism from some conservatives—as he traveled to Georgia for a speech that blasted the legislation's critics.
"I'm sure you've heard some of the talk out there about people defining the bill. It's clear they hadn't read the bill. They're speculating about what the bill says, and they're trying to rile up people's emotions," he told an audience at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, near Brunswick. "If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it, you can use it to frighten people. Or you can show leadership and solve this problem once and for all."
Bush acknowledged that the proposed overhaul faces a difficult time in Congress, where it's under attack from both ends of the political spectrum.
Conservative critics contend that it amounts to an amnesty program because illegal immigrants would be allowed to stay in the country after paying $1,000 fines. Some liberals complain that plans for a new temporary worker program are overly restrictive and would create a permanent underclass of foreign workers.
Some of the most vociferous criticism has come from conservative talk-show hosts who usually back the president. Commentator Rush Limbaugh has told his listeners that the legislation would doom the Republican Party and the nation.
The bill seeks to strike a balance between tougher border enforcement and a more welcoming policy toward the estimated 12 million immigrants who already are in the country illegally.
Bush hopes to push it through Congress with help from a bipartisan group of lawmakers that includes Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a liberal stalwart, and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a staunch conservative. The president said he had no hesitations about working with Kennedy despite their sharp differences over Iraq and other issues.
"The reason why is, he can get the job done," Bush said aboard Air Force One.
Sitting in his spacious office on the presidential aircraft, Bush traced his commitment to immigration to his time in Texas.
"When you grow up in Texas like I did, you recognize the decency and humanity of Hispanics. And the truth of the matter is, a lot of this immigration debate is driven as a result of Latinos being in our country," he said. "I have seen firsthand the beautiful stories of people being able to take advantage of opportunity and make solid contributions to our society."
He said Americans had nothing to fear from large-scale immigration from Latin America.
"There is an element of our society that is worried about two Americas," he said. "Our ability to welcome newcomers and the system's capacity to assimilate them has been one of the great powerful traditions of America. It works, and it will work this time. People shouldn't fear our capacity to uphold our motto: E Pluribus Unum."
The Latin phrase means "Out of many, one."
Addressing one of the most sensitive issues in the measure, Bush expressed hope that the changes would reduce the need for a fence along the border with Mexico.
The bill requires the completion of at least 370 miles of fencing, along with other security measures, before any temporary worker program can go into effect, but doesn't specify how much of the border ultimately will be fenced. Congress approved legislation last year calling for 700 miles of fence.
The proposed fence has drawn protests in Texas, where officials fear it will hinder commerce and cause environmental problems.
"The fence sends a clear signal that we're serious about enforcing the border," Bush said. "A lot of these ranchers down there are saying, `Wait a minute. Bad idea.' I presume we're not going to build a fence on places where people don't want it."