Bush calls for 6,000 troops along border
In Oval Office speech, president backs legalization process
A U.S. Border Patrol agent arrests a suspected illegal immigrant in March near Yuma, Arizona.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush outlined Monday night what he termed a "comprehensive" approach to immigration that combines tougher border enforcement with a guest-worker program.
Trying to navigate the election-year minefield on the issue, Bush called for the short-term deployment of up to 6,000 National Guard troops in a supporting role along the U.S.-Mexico border.
And he endorsed a controversial proposal to give illegal immigrants already in the United States a path to work toward citizenship.
"The issue of immigration stirs intense emotions -- and in recent weeks, Americans have seen those emotions on display," Bush said in a 16-minute speech televised from the Oval Office.
"In Washington, the debate over immigration reform has reached a time of decision." (Text of speech)
With conservatives in his base calling for a crackdown on illegal immigration, the president conceded that "we do not yet have full control of the border" and called on Congress to fund "dramatic improvements" in manpower and technology along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Watch the political implications of the debate -- 1:43)
Bush called for a 50 percent increase in the number of Border Patrol agents; construction of security fences and barriers and high-tech surveillance devices along the border; and more money for state and local law enforcement in border states.
Under Bush's plan, the number of Border Patrol agents would rise from 12,000 to 18,000 by the end of 2008.
But in a nod to America's growing and politically vital Latino population, Bush made the argument that a guest-worker program is necessary to gain control of the border and relieve the "enormous pressures on our border that walls and patrols alone will not stop."
Every legal foreign worker would get what Bush said was a tamper-proof, biometric identity card that would make it easier for employers to determine an immigrant's legal status.
The Senate resumed debate Monday on immigration legislation that would create a mechanism by which illegal immigrants could proceed toward legal status, and eventual citizenship, by working for a number of years, paying fines, undergoing a background check and learning English.
Critics dismiss such a legalization process as "amnesty." Supporters reject that term, insisting the process amounts to "earned citizenship."
For the first time, Bush publicly endorsed the idea, calling it a "rational middle ground" between a policy of giving all illegal immigrants "automatic" citizenship or deporting them, which Bush said would be "neither wise nor realistic."
"People who meet these conditions should be able to apply for citizenship, but approval would not be automatic, and they would have to wait in line behind those who played by the rules and followed the law," Bush said.
An immigration reform plan that has the support of Senate GOP leaders would limit legalization to those in the country longer than five years.
Any form of legalization could be a tough sell to members of Bush's own party, particularly in the House, where lawmakers passed an immigration bill in December that contained neither a worker program nor a legalization process.
Giving the Democratic response to Bush's speech, Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the assistant minority leader, said Bush's leadership would be required to bring House and Senate Republicans together.
"The president has the power to call up the National Guard, but now he must summon the power to lead his own Republican forces in Congress to support a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform," Durbin said. (Durbin transcript)
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, called the decision to send troops "the shot in the arm we need to strengthen our borders and protect our families."
But Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, said he was "very disappointed" by the speech. He took issue with Bush's distinction between a legalization process for illegal immigrants and amnesty.
"If they are here illegally and you make them here legally, that is an amnesty," he said. (Reaction)
Troops called temporary
Bush said the Guard would assist the Border Patrol by "operating surveillance systems, analyzing intelligence, installing fences and vehicle barriers, building patrol roads and providing training."
"Guard units will not be involved in direct law enforcement activities --- that duty will be done by the Border Patrol."
"This initial commitment of Guard members would last for a period of one year. After that, the number of Guard forces will be reduced as new Border Patrol agents and new technologies come online," Bush said.
About 350 Guard troops currently are assigned to the border.
Bush's plan to deploy the National Guard received initial support from both Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
But Reid cautioned that the National Guard is already stretched thin by deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, a concern echoed by two prominent Republicans who have questioned the plan -- Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.
The number of Guard troops deployed to Iraq has been cut by more than half, from about 50,000 a year ago to 23,000.
News that the National Guard might be deployed along the border also prompted Mexican President Vicente Fox to call Bush on Sunday to express concerns about any possible move to "militarize" the roughly 2,000-mile border.
"The United States is not going to militarize the southern border. Mexico is our neighbor, and our friend," Bush said.
"We will continue to work cooperatively to improve security on both sides of the border."
Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, a former Border Patrol officer, sent a letter to the White House warning that the deployment of National Guard troops could result in Mexican voters choosing an anti-American president in their July election.
"If that happens, illegal immigration will be the least of our problems," said Reyes, a Democrat.
In his speech, Bush said his administration would end the "catch and release" policy, under which illegal immigrants apprehended from countries other than Mexico are released and allowed to live in the United States while awaiting a deportation hearing.
Bush said more facilities would be built to detain illegal immigrants, and he said steps were being taken to expedite the hearing process.
Poll: Reaction positive
A CNN poll conducted immediately after the speech by Opinion Research Corp. found that 79 percent of those who watched had a positive reaction.
Three-quarters of those responding said they favored sending National Guard troops to the southern border. The guest-worker program and the legalization had similarly strong support.
The poll included interviews with 461 adult Americans and had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
It does not reflect the views of all Americans, because more Republicans watched the speech than Democrats. (Poll results -- PDF)
CNN's Ed Henry, Suzanne Malveaux, Jamie McIntyre and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.
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