President Bush On Immigration Debate: "Tough Choices" Lie Ahead

As the Senate arms itself for a contentious immigration debate, President Bush warned Monday that "tough choices" lie ahead.

Securing the nation's borders and determining the nation's immigration laws "is not going to be easy," Bush said during an appearance at a naturalization ceremony to swear in new citizens. "It will require all of us in Washington to make tough choices and make compromises."

"Debate should be conducted in a civil and dignified way. No one should play on peoples' fears or try to pit neighbors against each other."

Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee rushed to finished immigration legislation before a midnight deadline. The full Senate is scheduled to begin debate over immigration Tuesday.

With congressional midterm elections approaching, Bush is struggling to win GOP support for his self-described guest-worker program that would allow temporary work visas for noncitizens.

"A temporary worker program is vital to securing our border," Bush said. "By creating a separate legal channel for those entering America to do an honest day's labor we would dramatically reduce the number of people trying sneak back and forth across the border."

The president said his plan would "free up law enforcement to focus on criminals and drug dealers and terrorists." And it would create "tamper-proof ID cards to track temporary workers."

Some opponents to the idea say it amounts to an amnesty program, a view that Bush argued against.

"One thing the temporary worker program should not do is provide amnesty for people who are in our country illegally," Bush said. "I believe granting amnesty would be unfair because it would allow those who break the law to jump ahead of people ... who play by the rules and who've waited in line for citizenship."

During the weekend, hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied nationwide against various proposed immigration laws by the House and members of the Senate.

Bush sees the guest-worker proposal as a way to reach out to Hispanic voters, CNN political analyst Ron Brownstein said.

"And what many Republicans fear is that the party will consolidate around an enforcement-only approach that is considered harsh, and it will only undo the gains that he has made in the last few years and send him in the wrong direction among a growing voter block."

Bush may have an uphill fight. While not one of the top issues, according to recent polls, most Americans say the main focus of federal action on this issue should be stopping illegal immigration, not making it easier for illegal immigrants to gain legal status.

In a CNN poll conducted in December, 56 percent said the main focus should be "developing a plan for stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. and deporting those already here," while 41 percent said the main focus should be "developing a plan that would allow illegal immigrants who have jobs to become legal U.S. residents."

The most controversial measure being considered by lawmakers passed the House of Representatives in December and would fence off 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border and make crossing the border illegally a felony.

Protests against the proposed legislation prompted demonstrators to flood the streets of Los Angeles and several other cities during the weekend.

About 2,000 members of the largely Latino United Farm Workers rallied Sunday in Los Angeles and an estimated half-million people turned out for a Saturday protest.

The House bill, pushed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, passed the House on a 239-182 vote. The Wisconsin Republican's bill also would require employers to verify the immigration status of workers before hiring them, with increased fines for employers who fail to comply.

Sensenbrenner's bill does not include two provisions that are supported by many other Republicans, including President Bush -- a guest-worker program and a method that would allow the 11 million workers now in the United States illegally to earn legal status.

Bush's guest-worker proposal, popular with some in the business community, has proven divisive within his own party. Efforts to legalize illegal immigrants have been dismissed as "amnesty" by critics like Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican.

"If you say you can be here, you can do that, you can come across the border without our permission and you will be able to stay -- and, yes, there will be some, you know, a little fine or whatever -- that's not deportation, it is amnesty," Tancredo told ABC's "This Week."

Such a program, he said, would "send a horrible message."

Tancredo said enforcing existing laws would discourage illegal immigration because employers would be unable to hire undocumented workers.

"If you actually began to enforce that, then you would see that millions of people will return home to their countries of origin voluntarily because, frankly, there's nothing else to do," he said.

But Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, called that concept "wishful thinking."

Specter said he would move a bill out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, that would require a criminal background check and a six-year employment record to qualify for legal status.

"They're going to be checked out very, very carefully," Specter told ABC. "They're not going to go ahead of people who have been waiting in line for citizenship. They're going to go to the end of the line for people who have stayed at home and gone through the normal channels."

A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that about 7.2 million illegal immigrants held jobs in the United States, making up 4.9 percent of the overall labor force. Undocumented workers made up 24 percent of farmworkers and held 14 percent of construction jobs, the study found.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, has called on Specter's committee to bring forward a bill by Monday.

Frist may also bring his own plan to the Senate floor for debate, just ahead of Bush's trip to Mexico for a summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Frist's proposal most closely resembles the House plan in that it contains neither a guest-worker program, nor any legalization mechanism for people already in the country illegally.

Another Senate bill, proposed by Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, would create a program that would allow guest workers to work in the country for three years with a visa that could eventually earn them permanent residency.

It would also create a legal process that could be used by people already in the country illegally to eventually gain legal status.

"What we have seen, across this country is that just enforcement, border enforcement, in and of itself does not solve the problem," Kennedy said Sunday.