“We do not yet have full control of the border and I am determined to change that,” Mr. Bush said in the 17-minute speech from the Oval Office.
The president said he recognized the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States, but said he would not grant them an automatic path to citizenship. Instead, these immigrants could be eligible to apply for citizenship if they pay back taxes, learn English and work in a job for “a number of years”, but even then would have to “wait in line behind those who played by the rules.”
Mr. Bush rejected the use of the word “amnesty” to describe his citizenship plan, a proposal that has drawn fire from conservatives within his own party. He said the proposal “is a way for those who have broken the law to pay their debt to society, and demonstrate the character that makes a good citizen,” and that it constitutes a “legal path for foreign workers to enter our country in an orderly way — for a limited period of time.”
In order to create permanent changes to the law, the president urged Congress to pass an immigration reform bill currently in the Senate before the end of May. Some analysts said his address appeared to endorse much of the Senate bill, which also called for an increase in Border Patrol agents.
Mr. Bush’s plan would also deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to temporarily support the 6,000 Border Patrol agents already stationed across the 2000-mile border in the four border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. State governors are responsible for deploying the National Guard in times of emergency, but the president can federalize the Guard at any time, as he had done previously for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the president, appearing to recognize the calls from leaders like Mexican president Vicente Fox, stressed his plans did not mean a fundamental shift in American border policy.
“The United States is not going to militarize the southern border. Mexico is our neighbor, and our friend,” he said.
White House officials said the National Guard troops would not enforce the border laws, but instead take a supportive role to the Patrol agents — assisting them with training, construction of roads and high-tech barriers, and operation of surveillance equipment. The troops would rotate on two-week bases until “new Border Patrol agents and new technologies come online.”
Maintaining a force of 6,000 could require up to 156,000 troops over the two years of the program.
Democrats were quick to criticize the planned deployment, saying the troops would be needed to deal with emergencies caused by natural disasters and expressing concern the Guard has been too stretched by their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Bush’s plan for the National Guard had also been criticized by fellow Republicans, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel.
“We’ve got National Guard members on their second, third and fourth tours in Iraq,” Hagel said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “We have stretched our military as thin as we have ever seen it in modern times. And what in the world are we talking about here, sending a national guard that we may not have any capacity to send up to or down to protect borders? That’s not their role.”
President Bush also requested the doubling of the number of Border Patrol agents by 2008, echoing the Senate bill that requests the addition of 12,000 Patrol agents between 2007 and 2011, and provides a similar path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Earlier in the day, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., stressed his proposal was “not amnesty.”
While Mr. Bush called his plan “an urgent requirement of our national security,” New Mexico’s Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson called it “a political P.R. move, so that the White House can appease conservative Republicans that want a repressive immigration bill.”
In his speech, Bush implored Republican and Democrat members of Congress directly saying, “An immigration reform bill needs to be comprehensive, because all elements of this problem must be addressed together – or none of them will be solved at all.”