WASHINGTON - President Bush said Monday that overhauling the nation's immigration laws "is not going to be easy" and warned critics against stoking anti-immigrant feelings by calling them a threat to the nation's identity or a burden to the economy.
"The immigration debate should be conducted in a civil and dignified way," the president said as the Senate prepared to tackle the hot-button election issue of what to do with the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants this week.
Bush used a naturalization ceremony for swearing in 30 new citizens from 20 countries and five continents to press his call for a "guest worker" program. The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, faced a midnight deadline for completing a bill.
"No one should play on people's fears or try to pit neighbors against each other," Bush said. "No one should pretend that immigrants are threats to America's identity because immigrants have shaped America's identity.
"No one should claim that immigrants are a burden on our economy because the work and enterprise of immigrants helps sustain our economy," the president said. "We should not give in to pessimism. If we work together I am confident we can meet our duty to fix our immigration system and deliver a bill that protects our people, upholds our laws and makes our people proud."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, calls for tougher border security have dominated debate over the knotty problem of controlling immigration.
But a tough immigration-enforcement bill passed by the House last year has galvanized forces that want worker programs for illegal immigrants already in the country.
"We will not accept enforcement-only approaches," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group.
Immigration reform advocates scheduled a rally Monday at the U.S. Capitol, where dozens of members of the clergy planned to wear handcuffs to protest what they said is the House bill's criminalization of their aid programs for poor immigrants.
More than 500,000 people rallied in Los Angeles on Saturday, demanding that Congress abandon the House-passed measures that would make being an undocumented immigrant a felony and erect a 700-mile fence along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Similar but smaller protests were held in Dallas, Phoenix, Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio, among other cities.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, said Monday it would be unrealistic to round up and deport the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. Instead, he told CBS' "The Early Show," the United States should create a "path toward legalization" based on whether the immigrants are law abiding, pay takes, are learning English or demonstrate other "positive behavior."
Senators up for re-election this year are being forced by the debate to juggle the demand from voters for tighter borders to keep out terrorists and businesses who look to the tide of immigrants to help fill jobs.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Sunday his panel will get a bill to the full Senate before Tuesday, even if it has to work "very, very late into the night."
Senate aides met into the evening Sunday in advance of a Judiciary Committee meeting to debate legislation, but there was no evidence of a breakthrough on the issue most in dispute. Lawmakers have been divided on whether illegal immigrants should be required to return to their home country before they become eligible for U.S. citizenship.
Whether or not the committee produces a bill, Majority Leader Bill Frist plans to open two weeks of Senate debate on the issue Tuesday. Frist, R-Tenn., has offered a measure that would punish employers who hire illegal immigrants and provide more visas. It sidesteps the issue of whether to let illegal immigrants already here stay.
Employers and immigration advocates prefer a bill drafted by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., that would allow illegal immigrants to become eligible for permanent residency after working for six years. Both McCain and Frist are likely candidates for the Republican presidential nomination next year.
Another approach offered by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., would let illegal immigrants get temporary work permits for up to five years. They would have to leave the United States but could then apply for legal re-entry.
Aides to Specter, Cornyn, Kyl, Kennedy and McCain spent much of the congressional recess last week trying to find a compromise that would stave off Frist's bill.