President Bush is taking steps to increase security on the southern border of the United States, as he seeks support in Congress for comprehensive immigration reform. Mr. Bush wants to spend an additional $2 billion on border security and deploy as many as 6,000 National Guard troops to back up the civilian Border Patrol.
As the Congressional debate on immigration entered a new phase, the president went before the American people to urge a multi-faceted approach to stop the flood of illegal aliens into the United States.
"We will fix the problems created by illegal immigration, and we will deliver a system that is secure, orderly and fair," said President Bush.
In a nationally broadcast address, President Bush talked about steps already taken to improve border security. He said there has been progress, but not enough.
"We do not yet have full control of the border, and I am determined to change that," he said. "I am calling on Congress to provide funding for dramatic improvements in manpower and technology at the border."
He spoke of plans to add 6,000 new border agents by the end of 2008, roughly doubling the size of the Border Patrol. He said over the next few years, while these new recruits are trained, the National Guard will send in troops to help.
The Guard is organized at the state level, and members participate on a part-time, as needed basis. The president said Guard members will not be involved in border enforcement, but will handle support jobs, freeing more border agents to serve on the front lines.
"The United States is not going to militarize the southern border," noted President Bush. "Mexico is our neighbor and our friend. We will continue to work cooperatively to improve security on both sides of the border, to confront common problems like drug trafficking and crime, and to reduce illegal immigration."
But the president stressed law enforcement, while crucial, is not enough. Once again, he urged lawmakers to approve his proposed guest worker program, which would provide temporary legal status to those willing to fill low-paying jobs.
"The reality is that there are many people on the other side of our border who will do anything to come to America to work and build a better life," he said. "They walk across miles of desert in the summer heat, or hide in the back of 18-wheelers [big trucks] to reach our country. This creates enormous pressure on our border that walls and patrols alone will not stop."
The legislation currently under consideration in the U.S. Senate would also create a mechanism that would enable many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country to eventually seek citizenship. They must pay fines, hold jobs, have roots in a U.S. community, learn English, and once they fill all these criteria they can get in line for citizenship behind those who entered the country legally.
The notion has split the American public. On the one side are those who say illegal immigrants are law-breakers who should be punished. On the other are millions of supporters of immigration rights, many of whom have taken to the streets of America in recent week to press for reform.
Congress is split, too. The president's plan to send in National Guard troops was seen by some as a way to appease conservatives who want a focus on border control. Speaking to reporters after the presidential address, Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, wondered aloud if the Guard is the best option.
"If Guard members are going to forego their regular training to patrol the border are they going to be prepared the next time we have an emergency at home or abroad," he asked. "Will the president guarantee National Guard troops will be available to protect their own homes and communities if they are needed? How much more are we going to ask of our National Guard?"
In his address, President Bush urged everyone involved in the immigration debate to adopt a reasoned and respectful tone. He said it is important to remember that real lives will be affected by the decision made in Washington, and he stressed every human being has dignity and value no matter what their citizenship papers say.