WASHINGTON -- In a nationally televised address aimed at rescuing his party from an election-year stalemate on immigration, President Bush announced last night that he would send thousands of National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border as part of a broader plan that also would allow some illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.
Bush offered the new border security proposal as the Senate launched its second debate of the year on immigration, an issue that has sparked intense emotions across the country and opened deep and bitter Republican divisions.
The speech was the start of a new push by Bush to boost his chances of scoring a much-needed victory on the sensitive topic and to give Republicans cover to back his immigration stance. He'll continue the campaign on Thursday when he visits the border at Yuma, Ariz.
"America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time," Bush said in a 17-minute speech from the Oval Office. "We will fix the problems created by illegal immigration, and we will deliver a system that is secure, orderly and fair."
Bush said he would deploy as many as 6,000 National Guard to support the Border Patrol with surveillance or other non-military, non-law enforcement activities as part of a $1.9 billion plan to beef up enforcement. The troops - a temporary measure while the government adds 6,000 Border Patrol agents over two years and launches a high-tech border initiative - could be sent as early as next month, the White House said.
"We do not yet have full control of the border, and I am determined to change that," Bush said.
With his conservative base vehemently opposed to Bush's plan for a guest worker program that would give some of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, the president's focus on security was designed to reframe the issue on terms more favorable to Republicans. Bush, who appealed directly to the House and Senate to cut an immigration deal, said the debate had "reached a time of decision."
"Members of Congress are afraid to vote if they think people don't like what they're doing. This is about creating political space" for lawmakers to support Bush's position, said Tamar Jacoby, a Manhattan Institute analyst who has advised the White House on immigration.
The prime-time speech, Jacoby added, is an indication that Bush is "really staking whatever he's got left on" enacting his immigration proposal.
That plan, similar to one the Senate is considering anew this week after it stalled earlier this year, is derided by many conservatives as "amnesty."
Bush denied last night that he favors amnesty, saying he was not proposing "an automatic path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants. But he said it is "neither wise nor realistic" to deport all the immigrants in the United States illegally.
Bush said he supports "a middle ground" that would allow illegal immigrants who have lived in the country "for many years" to apply for citizenship if they pay fines and taxes, learn English and hold down a job.
The conservative-dominated House, by contrast, has passed a border security-only measure, and leaders there eye any additional immigration measure with sharp skepticism.
Bush strongly suggested last night that he opposes such an ap proach, 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."
In a statement last night, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, signaled that his chamber is in no mood to change its stance. Applauding Bush for his commitment to security, Boehner said House Republicans would "make border security our first priority" in future negotiations on immigration.
It's unlikely that Bush's security push will change minds on Capi tol Hill among those who have condemned any path to citizen ship for illegal immigrants, analysts said. But it could persuade a large, still-uncommitted majority in the Senate - one that is weighing a guest-worker program but is concerned about appearing to take an overly permissive approach - to back Bush's plan, paving the way for a high-stakes House-Senate negotiation.
"Secure borders must be the cornerstone of any comprehensive immigration reform plan," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who called the National Guard plan "an effective, short- term stopgap" to secure the border.
Democrats and some Republicans said they worried that Bush's proposal would further burden the National Guard at a time when they believe it is over-stretched with repeated deployments to Iraq, and after trying rotations to help with Hurricane Katrina relief and recovery.
Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Republican from Maine, said she was "concerned about adding another burden to their missions." The House's Democratic whip, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, said the proposal raised "many red flags," adding that his party instead favors a hefty funding increase for the Border Patrol.
Hoyer said the president's proposal was "motivated primarily by a desire to shore up support within the Republican Party's conservative political base - which is abandoning him in recent polls - rather than in pursuing a serious, bipartisan effort to craft responsible immigration reform and secure our borders effectively."
But Democrats found little to disagree with in Bush's remarks. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, who delivered his party's response to Bush's address, said Democrats are willing to support using the National Guard at the border but are worried about details of the plan.
"How much more are we going to ask of our National Guard?" the Illinois Democrat said.
Bush's new tack on immigration also is calculated to better position Republicans to gain partisan advantage on the issue in November's elections, strategists say privately. Republican operatives said they are eager to draw stark contrasts between leaders in their party who emphasize security and Democrats who they paint as unwilling to crack down on illegal immigration.
"If you can get the Democrats voting against border security, when in the polls it's very popular, that's a political problem for them and a plus for Republicans," said Steven E. Schier, a Carlton College political scientist.
Conservatives who have complained that Bush is too willing to reward illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship tepidly praised the president's focus on security, but said it would not earn him support for the guest worker portion of his proposal.
"It appears that the administration has begun to understand the breadth and depth of frustration with our open borders, and I welcome the president's support of increased enforcement," said Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a vocal anti-immigration Republican. "But if the president thinks by taking one step forward with enforcement, the House will follow him two steps backward with amnesty, he's confusing us with the Senate."
And some senior House Republicans fumed privately about Bush's speech, worried that by siding with the Senate's more permissive measure, the president was trying to force them into accepting a more moderate stance on immigration that would provoke the ire of their constituents.
"Democrats at this point are sitting on the sidelines watching and eating their popcorn. They're just enjoying watching this issue dividing the Republican Party," said Marshall Wittmann, an analyst at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
There are substantial risks for Bush in his new approach, chief among them the possibility that his get-tough stance will alienate the very Hispanic voters his immigration proposal has been calibrated to attract to the Republican Party.
Bush's goal "is to create a new majority coalition for the Republican Party with Hispanics as an important component," said William A. Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. "The problem is that President Bush's Hispanic agenda, at least the immigration portion of it, is not accepted by a majority of his own party, and so he is now engaged in a very delicate and difficult set of political maneuvers."
Bush's top aides deny that his plan is based on politics, arguing that the president has had a long-standing interest in finding a workable solution to the nation's immigration problems, including on security.
But senior officials acknowledged yesterday that the notable change in Bush's immigration message - from talk of matching willing workers with willing employers, to discussion of which border-state governors would control National Guard troops - was, at least in part, the result of an outcry from within his party.
"He listened to people on the issue," said Tony Snow, Bush's press secretary.
The Bush immigration plan
Deploy up to 6,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border starting in June to support the Border Patrol in nonmilitary, non-law enforcement roles
Create a temporary worker program that gives participating foreigners a tamper-proof identity card to seek legal employment in the United States
Allow illegal immigrants who have been here for many years a chance to earn citizenship after paying fines and back taxes, learning English and holding down a job
Request $1.9 billion for better border enforcement