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Bush pushes immigration plan on border visit

U.S. President George W. Bush tours the US-Mexico border at San Luis, Arizona, Thursday.


National Guard

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President George W. Bush visited the U.S.-Mexico border Thursday to try to build support for his plan to stem the tide of illegal immigrants into the United States.

In an interview with CNN White House Correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, Bush was asked how he can convince his opponents -- including many in his own Republican party -- that his plan is sound.

"I can offer them a comprehensive strategy to get the job done," Bush said in San Luis, Arizona, a town across the border from the Mexican community of San Luis Rio Colorado. (Watch Bush explain his plan -- 6:15)

Asked about skepticism and criticism by some that Bush is using the border issue as a publicity stunt, the president told CNN, "To secure this border is going to require a comprehensive approach. Comprehensive means more agents, more technology and a temporary worker program."

Bush is seeking $1.9 billion from Congress, for, among other things, the deployment of up to 6,000 National Guard troops to help Border Patrol agents. The number of troops will increase gradually to that number by 2008, Bush said, and will be reduced as the Border Patrol is able to increase its presence.

"They will assist the Border Patrol by operating surveillance systems, building infrastructure, analyzing intelligence, and providing training until new Border Patrol officers and technologies come online," Bush wrote in a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert. (Watch whether border technology actually works -- 2:04)

"The request for additional resources, coupled with additional legal authority from the Congress, will end the practice of catch and release along our southern border once and for all by increasing detention, transportation, and removal capabilities," Bush said.

The troops would have no law enforcement role, but their presence would free Border Patrol agents from logistical duties and speed construction projects along the border, Bush said.

The National Guard troops will come from units in potentially every state, and will be under the command of the governors of the four southern border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Bush has promised the governors -- who can veto the use of their troops -- the federal government would repay them for their costs.

During Bush's visits with border agents and other officials Thursday in Yuma, Arizona, he did not discuss either of two competing proposals in Congress -- one approved by the House that would build 700 miles of fence and one in the Senate that would build half that.

Bush said this isn't the first time his administration has addressed the border issue.

He said that since he took office in 2001, the number of border agents has increased from 9,000 to nearly 12,000. More than 100 agents have been added in the busy Yuma sector in the past year, for a total of 660, he said. New fencing, lighting and cameras have been added in key locations.

"We're in the process of making the border the most technologically advanced in the world," Bush said.

Opponents contend the barriers would shift illegal immigrant and smuggling traffic to areas of the border without fencing.

More than 85 percent of the illegal immigrants come from Mexico, and most are sent home within 24 hours, he said. The president's guest-worker program would allow foreign workers to fill jobs in the United States for a limited time, after which they would return home.

Immigrants with roots in the United States would be given a process to follow to gain citizenship, if they qualified.

Bush stressed that opponents of his plan should not be considered racists.

"I think it would be too harsh a judgment to say that somebody who doesn't support a comprehensive immigration plan is a racist," he said.

Support growing

Public support for President Bush's handling of immigration issues has improved, according to a CNN poll released Thursday. Thirty-six percent of respondents approved of his handling of immigration, up from 25 percent in a poll taken in January.

By a 2-to-1 margin, those polled said they favored Bush's plan to deploy National Guard troops along the U.S.-Mexico border. And by an even larger margin -- 79 percent to 18 percent -- they said they favored allowing illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for many years to apply for citizenship.

However, respondents in the poll were more evenly split when it came to Bush's temporary worker program.

Asked if they favored a program that would allow temporary workers to come to the United States without leading to citizenship, 48 percent were in favor and 46 percent opposed, which was within the poll's sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Sixty-two percent said immigration would be extremely or very important to their vote for Congress this year. But generally speaking, immigration remains low on the public's list of priorities. The economy, terrorism, the war in Iraq, public corruption and fuel prices rank higher. Fewer than half of those polled approved of Bush's handling of any of those subjects, and 57 percent said they disapproved of his performance in office.

The president's overall approval rating stands at 36 percent, a slight improvement from the previous mark of 34 percent in a poll taken earlier this month.

The poll, conducted for CNN by Opinion Research Corporation, surveyed 1,022 adults Tuesday and Wednesday.

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