WASHINGTON -- Faced with deep divisions in its political base over immigration reform, the Bush administration said yesterday that it would press ahead with the president's plan to adopt tougher measures to control the borders and crack down on illegal residents, while at the same time pushing a "guest worker" program that would make it easier for foreigners to enter the United States legally.
Conservatives, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, have called for putting off consideration of a guest worker program until after a law enforcement crackdown has been launched and demonstrates that it can choke off the flow of illegal immigrants and deal with the 11 million who are inside the United States unlawfully.
Administration officials sought to mollify the conservatives by adopting strong language to describe their commitment to more draconian enforcement of immigration laws, both on the border and in the interior of the country.
President Bush and Cabinet officials also said they would not support amnesty or an easy path to citizenship for those who entered the country illegally.
Though they provided few details, they said illegal workers would have to pay significant penalties, including leaving the United States, before they could seek legal status.
But the officials insisted that greater efforts on law enforcement must go hand-in-hand with enactment of a guest worker program to facilitate the flow of immigrants into the U.S. work force.
The administration's position, sketched in testimony before Congress and in remarks by the president during a bill-signing ceremony, offered new insight into what it is prepared to do - and not do - to bridge the gulf that has opened up between two key elements in Bush's political base.
Business groups, including many California farmers and growers, insist that any new federal immigration policy must assure them of a steady supply of low-cost foreign labor.
But some social conservatives have been demanding draconian law enforcement measures, and they have vowed to block a guest worker program until Washington chokes off the flow of illegal immigration.
Only last week, Frist was quoted in the Washington Times as saying the Senate would tackle border control and enforcement of immigration laws before taking up broader questions of immigration policy and guest workers.
And yesterday, after hearing testimony from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, some Republicans on the Judiciary Committee bridled at the president's plans.
"Our committee has a lot of work to do before we truly think about implementing a guest worker program in this country," Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, told Chertoff.
"I say that because our Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents drive by day-labor centers knowing that illegal aliens loiter the street corner in search of illegal work - but do nothing. I don't know how we can reasonably create a system for 10 million illegal aliens when we cannot currently handle the workload on our desks."
Bush, in remarks made as he signed a $31 billion funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security, including more money for border enforcement, acknowledged the problem but defended his approach.
"We got people sneaking into our country to work. They want to provide for their families. But because there is no legal way for them to do so, through a temporary worker program, they're putting pressure on our border," Bush said.
Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.