Bush planning to use Guard along border

May 13, 2006|By NICOLE GAOUETTE | NICOLE GAOUETTE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- With the Senate set to resume debate on immigration, President Bush will make a prime-time televised speech Monday in which he is likely to outline a broader role for the National Guard in border security.

Those measures appear aimed at raising the comfort level among conservative Republicans with provisions of a Senate immigration bill that many of them now oppose, including proposals for a guest worker program that could bring new foreign workers into the country and a pathway to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants already here.

Bush's speech, scheduled for 8 p.m., is meant to build momentum in Congress to pass an overhaul of immigration laws.

The Senate bill would increase border security and establish a guest worker program allowing participants to work toward citizenship. It would also give most of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a way to earn citizenship, based on the length of their stay in the United States.

Many House Republicans oppose the Senate bill and support House legislation, approved in December, that focuses solely on border security and immigration-law enforcement. It would build a 700-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and make illegal presence in the United States a felony.

Deploying National Guard troops is one of several measures that could reassure conservatives who prefer the House bill, possibly increasing the chances of drawing them to the Senate's approach. Some members of Congress and southwestern governors have been pushing to use National Guard troops to help support the border patrol, a move that has been used in the past but only with considerable controversy.

A senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to be identified discussing a speech still in formation, said Bush would outline a role for the National Guard to help U.S. Border Patrol agents protect the borders and said that could involve surveillance, detection or construction, rather than conventional law enforcement and apprehension work.

The White House official also said the president might propose a role for private companies. He gave as an example detention work that would allow border agents to get "out from behind desks."

Pentagon officials declined yesterday to say whether they were actively planning for such a contingency, but one defense official said the department would be reluctant to use Guard soldiers in such a mission.

"Border security, policing, is not the primary role or mission of the U.S. military," said the official, who was not authorized to speak by name. The military currently provides some technical support to the border patrol.

In recent weeks, Republican senators have proposed measures that could also make the Senate bill more appealing to conservatives.

In late April, the Senate passed a measure co-sponsored by Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, to provide $2 billion for security along the U.S.-Mexico border, paying for additional agents, surveillance equipment and detention facilities.

Sen. Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, floated a proposal that would limit legalization of illegal immigrants to those who have "deep roots" in the U.S., such as a spouse or children who are citizens. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, plans to introduce a guest worker plan that does not include a path toward enhanced legal status.

But powerful forces are also working against the Senate bill. And with Bush's approval ratings at the lowest level of his presidency, his power to sway even members of his own party is unclear.

"The real problem lies in whether [Republican] conservatives will accept any bill that includes a path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants, said Marshall Wittmann, a former Republican Senate aide now at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. He likened the struggle within the GOP to a civil war.

For Republicans, passing the kind of broad immigration bill that Bush has called for presents risks. Recent polls show that Bush has suffered a 13 percent decline in Republican support, in part because of unhappiness about his stance on immigration.

Wittmann added that some strategists within the Democratic Party, which generally backs the approach of the Senate bill, believe the party would benefit if that bill failed. That would leave Republicans having to defend the enforcement-only House bill, which has provoked nationwide protests by immigrants and their advocates, partly because that bill makes it a felony to be an illegal immigrant.

"Democrats would love to see the infighting go on in the Republican ranks through November elections," Wittmann said, attributing that stance to some Democrats running election campaigns.

Factors propelling lawmakers toward passage of the Senate bill include the looming political power of Latino voters.

Already the nation's largest minority group at 42 million, Latinos are also its fastest growing group, according to new census figures. Immigrant advocates are planning a summer-long voter registration drive to harness that power.

Bush's speech will be his first on domestic policy delivered from the Oval Office. It will be less than 20 minutes long.

While Bush has spoken frequently on immigration, he has avoided discussing specific elements he would like to see in the legislation. His position was "not precisely known to the American people," the White House official said, but the speech "will flesh out his position."

Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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