YUMA, Ariz. -- President Bush unveiled the basics of his latest immigration proposal yesterday, including tougher border enforcement and a complicated path to legal status for illegal immigrants that the White House hopes can break the congressional deadlock over the thorny issue.
"It's important we get a bill done," Bush said at a border patrol station, asking Congress to send legislation to his desk this year.
Whether he can help get a bill passed this year looms as a major test of his influence in Congress in the latter half of his last term.
Although the president was vague about the details of his new effort, proposals being discussed by White House officials and GOP lawmakers seem to be designed to attract recalcitrant Republicans.
One plan would require illegal immigrants wishing to remain in the United State to return to their country of origin and pay a $10,000 fine to obtain a three-year work visa. The visas would be renewable at a cost of $3,500.
Also, illegal immigrants who were in the United States before June 1, 2006, paid fees and fines, and met other criteria, including learning English, could eventually seek to become citizens.
Those conditions are more stringent than the provisions in a bill that the Senate passed last year and that Bush supported. But it remains uncertain whether tougher restrictions will overcome the objections of Republicans and some conservative Democrats who view as amnesty any path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
Bush, as he has throughout the immigration debate, said in his speech yesterday that he opposes amnesty, which he defined as "the forgiveness of an offense without penalty."
He said he is working with the Democrats, who control Congress, and Republicans "to find a practical answer that lies between granting automatic citizenship to every illegal immigrant and deporting every illegal immigrant."
Deportation, he said, is "just an impractical position; it's not going to work. It may sound good, it may make a nice sound bite, [but] it won't happen."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, and top Senate Democrats, including Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, have told the White House that they will not pass a bill relying almost exclusively on Democratic votes, forcing the administration to work for Republican support.
Another political dilemma for Bush is that the more he embraces stiff conditions for visas and citizenship, the more he risks undercutting support among Democratic liberals for an overhaul of immigration rules.
"We're having productive conversations with members from both sides of the aisle in both houses about comprehensive reform," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "There are a number of proposals floating around and a number of discussions going on."
One new wrinkle under consideration by the White House would rewrite the law on legal immigration. Until now, family relations played a key role in the awarding of visas granting legal residency to immigrants. Under the proposals being discussed by Republicans in the Senate, family connections would take a back seat to business needs.
Reaction to Bush's speech underscored the hurdles facing an immigration bill.
Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, said he sees no signs of a major policy shift in Bush's remarks. He said he remains opposed to the president's immigration plan because he considers it tantamount to amnesty.
"My definition of amnesty is when you forgive and reward lawbreakers with the objective of their crimes," he said.
Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times