IRVINE, Calif. -- Addressing an audience in a community at the forefront of the immigration debate, President Bush said yesterday that "massive deportation" of illegal immigrants would not work and that the United States could remain open to immigrants while controlling its borders.
In an hour-long presentation before a business group, the president acknowledged the emotions that the debate has fueled. But in a message clearly directed at the harshest critics of illegal immigration, he said: "One thing we cannot lose sight of is that we're talking about human beings, decent human beings that need to be treated with respect."
Short of calling for all illegal immigrants to be sent back to their home countries, Bush offered something for nearly everyone concerned with immigration: He insisted that the borders be protected. He supported a course for some of those who are in the United States illegally to gain citizenship. He renewed his plea for a guest-worker program, opposed by many Republicans.
And he delivered a reminder of the desperate economic needs - to put food on their families' tables - that prompt people to risk their lives and spend thousands of dollars trying to enter the United States.
"You can be a nation of law and a compassionate nation at the same time," the president said.
But Bush offered no new ideas to solve the deadlock that has foiled congressional efforts to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
Still, by addressing the issue in an area frequently described as a flash point in the immigration debate, the president signaled a White House effort to revive the legislative battle that ground to a halt 2 1/2 weeks ago.
Telling his audience that the United States had caught 6 million people trying to cross the border since he took office in January 2001, the president addressed head-on those who want to seize and deport everyone in the United States illegally.
The Senate's debate on immigration foundered this month as Democrats and Republicans disagreed on procedural measures. The bill they were considering would have created a guest-worker program, with a path to citizenship, and would have allowed most of the undocumented immigrants now in the United States to work toward citizenship as well.
A House bill passed in December concentrates solely on enforcement, an approach that is backed by some Senate conservatives.
Much of the debate also focused on whether, as well as when, to grant citizenship to the estimated 12 million people now in the country illegally.
Under a proposal forged by two Republican senators, Mel Martinez of Florida and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, those in the United States for more than two years could work toward citizenship, and those here for less than two years would have to leave the country.
James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.