Bush stresses assimilation

President says issue of immigration tests nation's soul


OMAHA, Neb. -- President Bush, on the second day of a tour to promote his immigration reform agenda, pushed yesterday for cultural assimilation in addressing the nation's quandary over immigration, which he said is "testing America's soul."

Nowhere is the dissension over immigration as graphic as in Nebraska, where Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, backs the "border control first" approach favored by the House. Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, was a leader in crafting the Senate approach of border enforcement, coupled with a path to citizenship for many of the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

In a speech at Metropolitan Community College, Bush several times praised Hagel for his leadership. Nelson, who normally is at Bush's side when the president visits Nebraska, stayed in Washington to cast votes, aides said.

For the most part, Bush talked as he has before about the need to enforce the border. He has called for 6,000 more Border Patrol agents by the end of his term and the need to give seasonal workers a temporary worker program and foolproof ID cards so that agricultural and manufacturing businesses can safely hire them for jobs "that Americans aren't doing."

But Bush said "the ultimate stumbling block, when you think about it," is what to do with the illegal immigrants already here. Advocating neither amnesty nor deportation, Bush called for those workers to pay a fine for breaking the law and then "go to the back of the line" in applying for citizenship.

"You can't enforce with just the Border Patrol and technology alone," he said. "So long as people have that strong desire to work," the country needs a plan "so people don't feel they have to sneak in."

And, emphasizing the importance of assimilation, he announced plans to form a task force on new Americans, led by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and an Office of Citizenship at the Department of Homeland Security, "to help people at the grass roots ... to promote knowledge of our values and history and language."

In a visit to a Catholic Charities facility here, Bush met with immigrants who have started small businesses and others who are attending classes in U.S. civics.

Encountering an immigrant from Venezuela, Bush said he was "a little worried about your country," and he said of Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, "Sometimes, leaders show up who do a great disservice to the traditions and people of a country."

In the civics class, he entered the room and said "Hola." A teacher told him the students spoke English in class.

He asked one student who the first president was, and the student - in what might have been a joke - said "George W. Bush."

In the business class, Bush talked to entrepreneurs about continuing to work hard so their children could go to college.

Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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