GLYNCO, Ga. -- President Bush cranked up his campaign for immigration reform yesterday, accusing detractors of unfairly picking apart a compromise bill and of denouncing the legislation without reading it.
The president used his most forceful language yet in support of the Senate bill, which would establish a new point system for awarding green cards and offer legal status to many illegal workers already in the country.
"The first step to comprehensive reform must be to enforce immigration laws at the borders and at work sites across America. And this is what this bill does," Bush said at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. "For the skeptics who say that we're not concerned about border security or workplace enforcement, they need to read the bill."
Bush accused conservative opponents of the bill of engaging in "empty political rhetoric."
"I know there are some people out there hollering and saying, 'Kick them out.' That is simply unrealistic. It won't work," Bush said. "If you want to scare the American people, what you say is, the bill is an amnesty bill. It's not an amnesty bill. That's empty political rhetoric, trying to frighten our fellow citizens."
Under the immigration reform deal struck this month between the White House and a bipartisan group of senators, workers seeking legal status would need to pay fines and back taxes and eventually demonstrate English proficiency.
Border security would also need to be improved before other parts of the package, including a temporary worker program and legal status for some workers who are currently illegal, can take effect.
One reason Bush chose to speak to trainees at this federal facility about 60 miles south of Savannah was to underscore his commitment to improved border controls. The bill would increase the number of border agents to 20,000, add hundreds of miles of fence and vehicle barriers, and build 105 more surveillance towers.
"A lot of Americans are skeptical about immigration reform primarily because they don't think the government can fix the problems," Bush said. "And my answer to the skeptics is ... give us a chance to fix this problem. Don't try to kill this bill before it gets moving."
White House officials declined to say whether the president has made progress in persuading members of his own party to support the deal.
"I'm not going to get into nose counting right now," said White House spokesman Tony Snow. "We have been inviting folks to take a look. And I think the more they hear, the more they're going to be inclined to support it."
The immigration package survived several legislative challenges last week, its first on the Senate floor. The administration and other supporters say they are optimistic that the bill will be passed in the Senate with its central compromise intact: legal status for many of those already in this country in return for shifting emphasis in the future away from family unification toward a more merit-based system.
The bill's fate in the House of Representatives is less certain.
Last year, a comprehensive immigration reform package squeaked past the Senate only to die in the House. This year House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, has said the White House needs to deliver 70 Republican votes or the bill will not make it to the president's desk.
"I appreciate the Republicans and Democrats in the United States Senate ... who put politics aside and put courage first to work on a comprehensive bill," Bush said. "It takes a lot of courage in the face of some of the criticism in the political world to do what's right, not what's comfortable. And what's right is to fix this system now before it's too late."
The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center trains agents who serve in 83 federal agencies, including those who work for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. On a tour of the facility before his speech, Bush watched three border control training simulations, including a land border crossing where vehicle traffic is screened. He also passed through a mock immigration control point, getting his fingerprints taken.
"Our nation depends on our federal agents to enforce our immigration laws at the border and across the country," Bush said in his speech. "You've got a big job to do. We're counting on you to enforce those laws."
Instead of making the immigration system more unwieldy, Bush argued that the new guest worker program would allow Border Patrol agents to concentrate on would-be terrorists and other dangerous border-crossers instead of people trying to get a job. Under that program, up to 200,000 temporary workers would be allowed to work in the country each year but could not become citizens.
"If you're interested in securing the border, wouldn't you rather have Border Patrol agents chasing down terrorists and gun-runners and dope-runners as opposed to people who are coming to do jobs Americans aren't doing?" he said. "A temporary worker plan, that is truly temporary, is going to make it easier for us to enforce the border."
Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.