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Governors call for immigration action

WASHINGTON – A growing number of governors, along the border and beyond, are sharpening their complaints about the flood of immigrants pouring into their states, pushing the Bush administration and Congress for action.

Republicans and Democrats alike on Sunday said they planned to bring the concerns to President Bush and his Cabinet in private meetings this week, bringing a front-line security worry of a different order than the latest Washington obsessions on ports and eavesdropping.

“This is a national issue,” said Democrat Janet Napolitano of Arizona, where 500,000 attempts to illegally cross the border were turned back last year – and an untold number got through. Nationally there are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants draining government resources. “We’re absorbing through taxpayer dollars the incarceration costs, health care costs, education costs,” Napolitano said.

Immigration was one contentious issue among many as more than 40 top state leaders gathered for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association. Bush was hosting the governors at a formal White House dinner Sunday evening.

In states as far from the southern border as Utah, Missouri, Tennessee and Vermont, governors said immigrants are costing states dollars and spurring state legislation. All agree the answer lies in Washington and hope to provide a push as Congress weighs several competing bills.

“It’s important to come together as governors with a single voice to give some direction,” said Republican Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah. “We deal with these issues day in and day out.”

Western governors have put together a plan that asks for tougher border enforcement that makes better use of technology, improvements in the visa system, adoption of a guest worker program and working with Mexico and other Latin America countries to tackle the root economic causes that send millions north looking for work.

The pressure has been rising recently. In Texas, there was an armed standoff last month between state authorities and apparent drug smugglers wearing Mexican military-style uniforms.

At the same time, governors warn that harsh measures alone would cause severe damage to many states, especially where agriculture depends on immigrant labor.

Two years ago, Bush laid out guidelines for a temporary worker program, but the 2004 elections made the administration and some in Congress reluctant to address it. That year, a Senate committee openly criticized Bush for failing to fight for his own proposal.

The House passed an immigration enforcement bill last year that called for building fences on the U.S.-Mexican border, allowing local law officials to enforce immigration laws, and requiring employers to verify the legal status of their employees.

Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has told lawmakers the Senate will begin considering immigration legislation March 27, but Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has predicted the Senate would not consider immigration reform until April or later.