April 29, 2007 in Nation/World

President returns to immigration reform

James Gerstenzang Los Angeles Times
Associated Press photo

President Bush addresses the graduating class at Miami Dade College on Saturday.
(Full-size photo)

MIAMI – President Bush renewed his efforts Saturday to address a major domestic policy challenge – one that possibly remains in reach – telling graduating students that the United States must build new immigration laws around economic needs and border protection, while helping newcomers join American society.

As part of a daylong trip to southern Florida mixing politics with policy, Bush addressed graduates, their families and other guests at the Kendall campus of Miami Dade College, a commuter college in a largely Hispanic district. Earlier, Bush raised $1 million for the Republican National Committee at a luncheon in Key Biscayne.

The president’s choice of topic and locale for his immigration remarks underscored the challenges he faces, as he seeks to avoid a standstill on domestic policy and move ahead with a long-held goal of building new Republican support among Hispanic voters – while talking about something other than the Iraq war.

Bush made only a passing reference to the war in his 19-minute speech.

Along with his weekly radio address Saturday morning – also on immigration – the remarks raised the visibility of the issue. They were intended, deputy White House Press Secretary Scott Stanzel said, to signal to Congress the importance Bush attaches to it, at the end of a week in which radio talk show hosts and others lobbied in Washington, D.C., to support tougher immigration laws than Bush.

The president said that the nation’s immigration system “is not working,” and that it cannot be fixed piecemeal. He called for a comprehensive approach “that will allow us to secure our borders and enforce our laws once and for all, that will keep us competitive in a global economy, and that will resolve the status of those already here, without amnesty and without animosity.”

At a college where, he said, more than half the students were raised speaking a language other than English, the president said the United States must “remain an open and welcoming society.”

He saluted the diversity he said was exemplified by Miami and the college, and said: “Over the years, America’s ability to assimilate new immigrants has set us apart from other nations. What makes us Americans is a shared belief in democracy and liberty. And now our nation faces a vital challenge: to build an immigration system that upholds these ideals – and meets America’s needs in the 21st century.”

For Bush, it was a day of organized adulation – first, among Republican contributors, and then, in a blue academic gown with black stripes, among students who gave him three ovations before he began speaking and interrupted him more than a dozen times with applause as he praised their struggle to obtain an education and the diversity they represented.

With Democratic majorities running the House and Senate, his approval ratings dipping in one recent survey below 30 percent, and much of his attention taken up by the military and political challenges posed by the war, Bush has little opportunity to make a major impact on domestic policy or to advance new programs.

The White House aims to win reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind education law that was the signature domestic policy achievement of his first term, and Bush speaks occasionally about shifting the nation’s reliance on petroleum to ethanol and other renewable fuels. But overhauling the nation’s immigration laws could prove the most controversial of his domestic priorities, and would demand a level of bipartisan cooperation that could be particularly difficult for him to muster given his weakened political standing.

As with other elements of the domestic program for which Bush needs Congress’ approval, he is running out of time: Presidential politics in 2008 are more likely to pull the parties apart and create policy divisions than to bring them together.

The president’s proposal, which faces the prospect of modification in slow-moving Senate talks, includes several elements recently added to increase the appeal to people – mostly Republicans – who have pressed for stricter enforcement of existing laws, without losing Democratic support.

These include increasing by 53 percent, to 18,300, the number of Border Patrol agents working on the U.S.-Mexican border, a four-fold expansion of the existing border fence, and, most likely, establishing a requirement that anyone seeking a job in the United States present secure identification.

A key shift would drop a long-standing practice of admitting immigrants seeking to join family members, instead using employment needs to place applicants in the line for admission.

Besides the boost in border security and efforts to verify a job applicant’s legal status, the plan emphasizes creating of a guest worker program and efforts to bring into the open the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.

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