WASHINGTON (BP)–President Bush has called for the deployment of as many as 6,000 members of the National Guard to help secure the United States’ southern border against illegal immigration.
Addressing Americans May 15 from the oval office of the White House, Bush presented a five-point plan to reform immigration policy. The president’s nationally televised speech came amid disagreement in his own party about how to address a problem he acknowledged has not been adequately dealt with for decades and after major protests in support of illegal immigrants across the country. It has been estimated there are as many as 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
Southern Baptist public-policy specialist Richard Land described Bush’s speech as “a tremendous, giant step forward.”
The president’s focus on “border security and border control” addressed the issue that concerns the greatest number of Americans, including Southern Baptists, said Land, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Miami pastor Augusto Valverde, president of the National Fellowship of Hispanic Churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, said in a statement to Baptist Press, “Even though we expected somewhat more from the [president], as we also expect the same from Congress, we are moving toward an openness of the mind and the heart of those who create the law and those who have the obligation to enforce it.”
President Bush, in focusing much of his 17-minute speech on securing the border with Mexico, said the federal government has a “straightforward” goal. “The border should be open to trade and lawful immigration and shut to illegal immigrants, as well as criminals, drug dealers and terrorists,” Bush said.
He urged Congress to fund improvements in technology on the border and 6,000 additional Border Patrol officers by the end of 2008. Bush also said the government will build “high-tech fences” in urban areas and new barriers in rural areas.
To address the immediate need, the president said he would work with governors to send as many as 6,000 National Guard troops to assist the Border Patrol initially for a year. Bush also said state and local governments would receive more federal funds to help the Border Patrol on specific missions. The “catch-and-release” program, which has permitted illegal immigrants who are caught to go free in this country, will be ended, he said.
The president announced four more objectives for comprehensive immigration reform:
— The establishment of a temporary work program that enables foreigners to work in the United States for a limited period before returning home.
— Increased accountability for employers who hire foreign workers, including a tamper-proof identification card for legal immigrants.
— A process for illegal immigrants already in this country to become citizens that includes paying a penalty for violating the law; learning English; and maintaining a job “for a number of years”; and waiting their turn behind those who have immigrated legally.
— Upholding the United States’ “melting-pot” tradition that enables immigrants to assimilate into society.
Bush called on the Senate to pass an immigration reform bill by the end of May. The House of Representatives already has approved a measure. The president called for the two chambers to agree on a comprehensive measure he could sign.
The president also urged Americans to conduct the debate “in a reasoned and respectful tone.” He said, “We cannot build a unified country by inciting people to anger or playing on anyone’s fears or exploiting the issue of immigration for political gain.”
The SBC’s Land said the president “clearly sent the message that the government is serious about controlling the border.”
“Once the government has convinced the people that it is serious about committing the resources necessary to control the border, then a consensus can be built around some type of guest-worker program and some path to permanent residence for most of those who are in this country illegally and wish to stay.
“That’s especially true when you consider the other significant impetus of the president’s speech last night, which was on assimilation and the absolute necessity of people learning to read, write and speak English as the key to assimilation,” Land continued. “The ability to read English is insufficient. One must be able to speak and write English in order to be able to fully assimilate and aspire to the American dream.
“This is a very complex issue which is going to require a lot of effort and a lot of trial and error before we get the right mix, but the program outlined in the president’s speech is a giant step forward and provides the raw materials for the American people to achieve consensus on how to deal with the issue of illegal and legal immigration,” Land said.
In a group meeting with Bush in March at the White House, Land told the president the “overwhelming majority” of Southern Baptists want the border secured and would likely support a type of guest-worker program that does not provide amnesty if they believe the government will work to control the border.
In his speech, Bush denied his proposal by which illegal immigrants might gain citizenship is amnesty. “Amnesty would be unfair to those who are here lawfully, and it would invite further waves of illegal immigration,” he said.
Valverde, the Hispanic Baptist leader, said in his statement he was trying to reflect “the feelings of the majority of Hispanics in this country.”
“I see positive aspects in the message of the President of the United States especially because, in some ways, he pressured the legislative branch to bring … an integral reform,” Valverde said.
He noted that the Hispanic Baptist fellowship leaders, in a declaration released in April, have indicated “that we are in agreement with the control of the borders -– a control that is effective yet humane, a control that denies, as the president underscored, the access of unwanted personnel -– mainly terrorists.”
“This is without a doubt, a country of laws which must be respected, but this does not mean that the best way [to do this] is sending the National Guard, even if its functions are logistical, because of the significance which this may have,” Valverde cautioned, adding, “This is without considering the cost which [this action] represents.
“The best way would be to accelerate the process and be able to comply with both aspects of strengthening the borders which offer an opportunity for the majority of documented immigrants in the country to acquire a legal means to work and to live with greater security for their families,” Valverde said. “The identification of laborers suggested by the president would help somewhat in this sense.
“The act of recognizing those illegals who are working, paying taxes and who have families and property in this country is the primary step to establish a program of legalization,” the Hispanic leader said. “Even though the president did not mention it in his address, we are worried about the ‘round-ups’ and passive deportations in the midst of a legislative process to approve a law that will most probably allow some of those that are being deported to legally remain in the country.”
While even Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Bush’s speech was a “good start,” some critics on both sides of the debate disparaged it.
In a commentary for National Review Online, Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R.-Ariz., called it a “missed opportunity.” Hayworth criticized Bush’s plan as “better than amnesty. Illegal aliens come to work, not to become Americans. The president would let them work and get citizenship as a bonus.”
Meanwhile, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials criticized Bush’s plan to deploy the National Guard in a written statement and opposed his recommendation of a “temporary guest-worker program that does not offer an earned path to U.S. citizenship.”
The House-approved immigration reform measure does not include a guest-worker provision but concentrates on border security and enforcement against illegal immigrants and those who aid them. Senate Democrats and Hispanic leaders have sharply criticized it.
Recent scrutiny by a Washington-based, conservative think tank of a leading Senate proposal has produced ominous predictions of that legislation’s effects. The Heritage Foundation said the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill, S. 2611, would result in “the largest expansion of the welfare state in 35 years” and 103 million legal immigrants in the next 20 years, according to reports released May 12 and 15, respectively.
The bill would provide amnesty for 9 to 10 million illegal immigrants, according to the report. The cost to the federal government, the report said, could be as much as $46 billion a year in benefits for the immigrants and their parents, who would be eligible to come to the United States. The legislation would add an additional 84 million legal immigrants to the 19 million permitted under the current law, The Heritage Foundation reported.
David Lema contributed to this article by translating the statement of Augusto Valverde, president of the National Fellowship of Hispanic Churches of the Southern Baptist Convention.