YUMA - President Bush traveled to ground zero of the immigration issue Thursday, inspecting a portion of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
He toured the region in a U.S. Border Patrol dune buggy and later made the case for his border and immigration policies.
“I suggest members of the Congress, as they debate the issue, they come down and look at the border and see what it’s really like,” said Bush, who gave a speech in Yuma.
Bush saw a section of cactusstrewn desert that has become the busiest portion of the border for illegal immigration in recent months. Border Patrol agents apprehend as many as 450 crossers a day in the agency’s Yuma Sector, which stretches 126 miles from California to Nogales, Ariz.
Last year, agents captured more than 138,000, up 13 percent from the nearly 120,000 in 2004.
During the four-hour visit to the country’s southern edge, Bush walked a strip of land fortified with a barbedwire fence, an earth berm and a dirt road monitored by Border Patrol agents in four-wheel-drives.
“It helps to have the president out here, to the area of the country that at times is overrun by people coming in here,” Bush said as the temperature soared over 100 degrees.
Bush is asking Congress for $1.95 billion to secure the border. The money would pay for the first 1,000 of 6,000 new Border Patrol agents to be hired during the next two years. It also would cover the temporary deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops who would help with surveillance and install new technology and infrastructure along the border.
The troops would be deployed for one year, with each unit serving two- or three-week rotations. Their numbers would be reduced as more Border Patrol agents are hired.
The U.S. Senate is expected to send an immigration bill to a joint Senate-House conference committee after May 29.
Bush rejected criticism that his plan gives immigrants amnesty, noting that immigrants seeking citizenship would have to pay fines and back taxes.
Richard Hays, supervisory agent for the Border Patrol, was at the president’s speech. He said Bush’s proposal should help hold the line near Yuma, which has seen a surge in activity because of a crackdown near San Diego and El Paso, Texas. “That right combination of resources is going to allow us to gain and maintain operational control of our border here,” Hays said.
Among those in attendance were Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano and Reps. J.D. Hayworth, Jeff Flake, John Shadegg and Jim Kolbe, all R-Ariz.
Napolitano welcomed the president’s plan to send troops to the border, said her spokeswoman Jeanine L’Ecuyer. The governor had asked Bush and Homeland Security and Defense officials for assistance several times since last year.
“She believes she’s been heard,” L’Ecuyer said.
Flake credited Bush for taking a “principled position” on immigration, despite some opposition.
In contrast, Mothers Against Illegal Aliens founder Michelle Dallacroce of Phoenix said Bush has mismanaged the immigration issue.
Dallacroce traveled to Yuma with copies of 1,500 emails in support of hard-line immigration positions to present to Bush. But Secret Service agents denied her access.
After watching his speech on TV, she said Bush’s definition of a comprehensive program is “to secure, welcome and reward. My definition of a comprehensive program is secure, secure and secure.”
President Bush used the Yuma visit Thursday to re-emphasize the five-point immigration strategy he outlined during a prime-time speech Monday:
Security: Increase security along the border. With 6,000 new Border Patrol agents in uniform by 2008, the force will have doubled since 2001.
Guest-worker program: Establish a guest-worker program that will allow foreign nationals to work legally in this country for limited periods of time.
“A temporary worker program would reduce the appeal of human smugglers. There is a whole industry that has sprung up that trafficks in human beings and degrades the human soul,” Bush said.
Employers targeted: Enforce laws against employers who hire illegal immigrants. The creation of tamper-proof identification cards would eliminate uncertainty about the legal status of those seeking jobs, he said.
Path to citizenship: Offer a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already living in the United States. Citizenship would be offered to those with established roots and clean criminal records, Bush said. They would be required to pay fines and back taxes.
Melting pot: Honor the tradition of the American melting pot, which unites people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.