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Bush Lobbies for Immigration Reform in Radio Address

President Bush is lobbying for an immigration reform bill in Congress that has already been defeated once by members of his own party. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, opposition Democrats are pushing the president to spend more on benefits for military veterans.

Changing American immigration law is the president's biggest legislative goal of the year. The major obstacle so far has been fellow Republicans who oppose bipartisan legislation because they say it amounts to amnesty for immigrants who have entered the country illegally.

With debate on the measure set to resume in the coming week, President Bush used his Saturday radio address to again defend the deal, saying it does not reward illegal immigration.

"Once the border security and worksite enforcement benchmarks are met, the bill will resolve the status of 12 million people who are now in our country illegally," said Mr. Bush. "Under this bill, these workers will be given an opportunity to get right with the law. This is not amnesty. There will be penalties for those who come out of the shadows."

Illegal immigrants would have to pass a background check, pay a fine, hold a job, maintain a clean criminal record, and eventually learn English to qualify for a visa. If they want a green card, or permanent U.S. residence, the bill says they would have to pay an additional fine and return to their country to apply from there.

Despite those requirements, Senate Republicans blocked the bill two weeks ago. A CBS News/New York Times poll says the issue splits the president's political party: 41 percent approve of his handling of the issue; 47 percent oppose it.

Some Republicans want tougher law enforcement at the border, so Mr. Bush endorsed an amendment that has more than four billion dollars in immediate funding for border security to be paid by fines and fees collected from illegal immigrants.

In his radio address, the president highlighted the bill's enforcement provisions including barring people caught crossing the border illegally from ever returning to the United States on a work or tourist visa.

"We have an obligation to solve problems that have been piling up for decades," he added. "The status quo is unacceptable. We must summon the political courage to move forward with a comprehensive reform bill."

In the Democratic radio address, Texas Congressman Chet Edwards said President Bush and Republican members of Congress have put a higher priority on tax cuts for the wealthy than they have on health care for military veterans.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the largest ever increase in veterans' health care funding this past week: a six-billion-dollar increase for 2008. That is nearly $4 billion more than the president asked for in his budget.

"For weeks, the White House budget office threatened to veto this bill because it was above their request," he said. "Fortunately, the president finally backed down on the threat to this historic veterans' bill but only after it was clear Congress would override a veto."

President Bush says he will veto other spending bills that exceed his budget requests, including a $37 billion budget for the Department of Homeland Security that is $2 billion more than he asked for.