President Bush says his plan to use National Guard troops to help crack down on illegal immigration does not constitute a militarization of the U.S. border with Mexico. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from the White House, where Mr. Bush spoke one day after delivering a primetime televised address to the American people on immigration reform.
President Bush says up to 6,000 National Guard troops will be sent to the U.S.-Mexico border. They will work behind the scenes, freeing U.S. Border Patrol agents to focus on intercepting illegal aliens.
Speaking at a joint news conference with visiting Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Mr. Bush sought to dispel apprehensions about the plan at home and abroad.
"We are not going to militarize our border," Mr. Bush said. "Mexico is a friend. But what we are going to do is use assets necessary to be able to assure the American people that the border is secure. And the objective is, on the one hand protect our borders, and on the other hand to never lose sight of the thing that makes America unique, which is that we are a land of immigrants."
In his address Monday, the president unveiled a detailed program to stem the flow of illegal aliens to the United States and deal with the 11 to 12 million undocumented aliens living in the country.
In addition to deploying National Guard troops, the plan calls for expanding the U.S. Border Patrol, using advanced technology to monitor the vast U.S.-Mexico border, and establishing a guest worker program. The plan also calls for cracking down on employers who hire illegal aliens, and providing a rigorous path to eventual citizenship for some aliens who have led productive lives in the United States for a long period of time.
Congressional critics, including some within his own Republican Party, say any path to citizenship amounts to amnesty for aliens who broke the law. President Bush disagrees, and suggested his conservative critics are unrealistic.
"There are some in our country who say, 'Let us just deport everybody.' It is unrealistic. It may sound attractive to some," Mr. Bush said. "You cannot deport people who have been in this country for a long period of time, millions of people. And so we have to be rational about how we move forward."
The House of Representatives has passed an immigration reform bill that would make illegal border crossing a felony, and penalize those who assist illegal aliens. The Senate is considering a bill that more closely mirrors President Bush's vision.
Whatever action the Senate takes, the resulting bill would have to be reconciled with the House version, setting the stage for potentially contentious negotiations between the two chambers.
Immigration has emerged as a polarizing issue in the United States before November midterm congressional elections.
In recent months, massive demonstrations have been held across the country in support of immigrants' rights. Others have demanded a crackdown on undocumented workers.
White House officials say President Bush is advocating a middle course between hardliners who want a zero-tolerance approach to all who entered the United States illegally, and those who argue the United States must not close its doors to foreigners who want to pursue the American dream.
Some members of Congress worry that a National Guard deployment along the border will further strain an over-burdened organization, making it more difficult for the Guard to meet obligations in the war on terror as well as disaster relief.
Administration officials say the Guard already plays a role in border security and will work in concert with state governments. The National Guard is organized at the state level, and members participate on a part-time, as needed basis.