IRVINE, Calif. - President Bush, rebutting lawmakers advocating a law-and-order approach to immigration, said Monday that those who are calling for massive deportation of the estimated 11 million foreigners living illegally in the United States are not being realistic.
"Massive deportation of the people here is not going to work," Bush said as a Congress divided over immigration returned from a two-week recess. "It's just not going to work."
In addition to speaking here, Bush was meeting Tuesday with a bipartisan group of senators at the White House to press his case.
Bush spoke in support of a stalled Senate bill that includes provisions that would allow for eventual citizenship to some of the illegal immigrants already here. Some conservatives say that would amount to amnesty.
"This is one of the really important questions Congress is going to have to deal with," Bush said. The president said he thought the Senate "had an interesting approach by saying that if you'd been here for five years or less, you're treated one way, and five years or more, you're treated another."
Standing in the center of a theater in the round-type setting with an audience full of business people, Bush spoke sympathetically about the plight of foreigners who risk their lives to sneak into the United States to earn a decent wage. He said the U.S. needs a temporary guest worker program to stop people from paying to be smuggled in the back of a truck.
"I know this is an emotional debate," Bush told the Orange County Business Council. "But one thing we can't lose sight of is that we are talking about human beings, decent human beings."
Several hundred demonstrators from both sides of the immigration issue protested outside Bush's speech.
More than an hour before Bush arrived, protesters from the Minuteman Project - the volunteer border patrol group whose co-founder ran for Congress in Orange County - were chanting "Go back to Mexico" and "God Bless America."
Across a driveway, a cluster of demonstrators also chanted and waved peace signs to protest the Minuteman group, Bush's immigration policy and the war in Iraq. In all, there were about 250 protesters, split evenly between both sides.
Lawmakers, with an eye on Election Day in just over six months, remain far apart on whether to crack down on illegal immigrants or embrace them as vital contributors to the U.S. economy.
Bush said it's important to enforce border laws that are on the books and boasted that 6 million immigrants have been captured and turned back since he took office.
"You can be a nation of law and be a compassionate nation at the same time," he said to applause.
The White House's immediate goal is to get legislation approved by the Senate and into a conference committee. The president's aides hope a compromise can be reached with House members who passed a tougher bill that would impose criminal penalties on those who try to sneak into this country and would build fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., intends to seek passage of immigration legislation by Memorial Day by reviving the Senate bill that stalled earlier this month due to internal disputes in both parties as well as political maneuvering.
In a gesture to conservative critics of the measure, Republican leadership aides said last week that Frist also will seek roughly $2 billion in immediate additional spending for border protection.
After his immigration speech, Bush was ending a four-day stay in California that also featured speeches on U.S. competitiveness and his energy plan, meetings with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former President Ford and plenty of time on his bike.
Bush's massive entourage took an overnight detour to Napa Valley just so he could bike through the picturesque wine country Saturday, and he rode Sunday morning to a peak overlooking Palm Springs.
He planned to stop in Las Vegas on his way home Monday to raise money for Republican Rep. Jon Porter at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino.