Although the war in Iraq was clearly the biggest single issue on the table, President Bush devoted substantial time in his next-to-last State of the Union address, delivered Tuesday night before Congress, to domestic issues, such as immigration.
President Bush spent nearly half of the speech focusing on domestic issues. And one issue where he can agree with the Democrats, who control Congress for the first time in his presidency, is immigration. Last year, immigration reform stalled in the Republican Congress, and President Bush urged legislative action this year, particularly on a guest worker program he says will help alleviate the illegal immigration problem.
"Extending hope and opportunity in our country requires an immigration system worthy of America – with laws that are fair and borders that are secure," he said during the speech. "When laws and borders are routinely violated, this harms the interests of our country. To secure our border, we're doubling the size of the Border Patrol, and funding new infrastructure and technology. Yet even with all these steps, we cannot fully secure the border unless we take pressure off the border – and that requires a temporary worker program.
"We should establish a legal and orderly path for foreign workers to enter our country to work on a temporary basis...(so that they) won't have to try to sneak in, and that will leave border agents free to chase down drug smugglers and criminals and terrorists." President Bush added that he wants greater sanctions against employers who knowingly employ undocumented workers, saying, "We'll enforce our immigration laws at the work site and give employers the tools to verify the legal status of their workers, so there's no excuse left for violating the law."
In a clear signal to the conservative members of his party who support a hardline stance on immigration, President Bush said: "We need to resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country without animosity and without amnesty. Convictions run deep in this Capitol when it comes to immigration. Let us have a serious, civil, and conclusive debate, so that you can pass, and I can sign, comprehensive immigration reform into law."
His comments on immigration were welcomed by pro-immigration groups, who nonetheless added that he should do more support a legislation on so-called "earned legalization," which they say will help resolve the status of the approximately 11 million undocumented workers already in the United States. A temporary guest worker program will not do that, they contend, and trying to deport millions of people is not realistic.
"The president has been steadfast in continuing to put this critical issue on the table, and last night he strengthened that commitment by making comprehensive immigration reform one of his top domestic priorities this year," said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza.
"We must take advantage of this historic opportunity to enact the best possible reform in 2007. But as the debate proceeds, it is important to get the policy details right. If we are going to truly reform our broken system, the new system must be effective. Immigrants whose hard work benefits this country should have the chance to earn their way to full status as Americans."
In the Spanish-language Democratic response to the president's address, Rep. Xaxier Becerra of Los Angeles took a jab at the GOP before agreeing to work with President Bush. "On immigration, after years of Republican attacks and inaction, Democrats are ready to lead," Mr. Becerra said. "For us to succeed, however, we will need the support of President Bush, and we are ready to work with him.
"Our bipartisan principles for comprehensive immigration reform are clear: protect our borders responsibly, fix the backlogged visa process, and establish a path for legal residency for immigrants who have earned it through years of hard work.
"Our immigration system is broken. Now is the time for comprehensive immigration reform."
(To see Mr. Becerra's response, go to http://www.speaker.gov/vids/BecerraSOTU.wmv)
"I hope the president's call for immigration reform is genuine," commented Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), a 26½ year veteran of the U.S. Border Patrol who now heads the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Not surprisingly, on other portions of his speech, namely Iraq, Hispanic Democrats were less convinced, saying the president's plan to send more troops to stabilize the country is unworkable. "I was disappointed with the president's discussion on Iraq," Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) said. "The American people have never been clearer that we need a new direction to achieve success in Iraq.
"The president's plan will further strain our own military and reduce our ability to fight a global war on terror. We've tried two troop surges in the last six months called 'Operation Together Forward' and 'Operation Together Forward II.' They did not work," Mr. Salazar said, adding, "I am hopeful that in the weeks to come the Senate can find a single bipartisan resolution to reflect the will of the people – to chart a new course in Iraq."
Mr. Becerra's response took a harder line. "It is time to discuss bringing our troops out of Iraq, not sending more in," he said. "Democrats believe we can re-deploy our troops responsibly; we can continue to train the Iraqis; and we then can refocus our efforts on counter-terrorism. And we must bring Iraq's neighbors into the process to stabilize the country.
"Bottom line: Iraqis must take responsibility for their future. Only Iraqis can save Iraq."
Republican members, such as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), said they want to give the president the benefit of the doubt. "We are talking about a global war on terrorism. The president is talking about these enemies that are enemies of democracy, enemies of liberty and enemies of the United States, and we have to succeed in Iraq to stop the terrorists."
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