President George W Bush issued a strong defence of the role of immigrants in American history as he warned legislators not to “play on people’s fears or try to pit neighbours against each other,” in the intensifying debate about immigration reform.
“We have a chance to move beyond tired choices and the harsh attitudes of the past,” he said at a naturalization ceremony for thirty new US citizens in Washington. “Creating a comprehensive bill is not going to be easy. It will require all of us in Washington to make tough choices and make compromises.”
Concern about punitive anti-immigrant proposals in a bill driven by House republicans, enticed almost 500,000 protestors, largely Hispanic, to turn out at a weekend rally in Los Angeles. Mr Bush has proposed tightening border security alongside a guest worker programme to address the problem of the 12m illegal immigrants in America.
“A temporary guest worker program is vital to securing our border. By creating a separate legal channel for those entering America to do an honest day’s labor, we would dramatically reduce the number of people trying to sneak back and forth across the border,” he said.
Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was on Monday trying to forge a compromise in his committee that would include some sort of guest worker programme. Bill Frist, Senate majority leader, had warned that if the committee failed to meet its deadline he would introduce a bill today that focuses just on border security.
Immigration reform was initially put on the agenda by Mr Bush’s advisers as a means to attract Hispanic voters and help forge a permanent Republican majority. However, the House bill, driven by more short term political instincts of appeasing conservative voters, threatens to alienate Hispanics, leading to potentially lasting damage to the image of the party.
According to the Pew Hispanic Research Centre, about 7.2m of these unauthorised migrants were employed, representing 4.9 per cent of the work force. They accounted for 24 per cent of farm jobs, 17 per cent of cleaning work, and 27 per cent of butchery jobs. Mr Bush noted many foreign workers “fill the jobs that Americans are unwilling to do.”
Since 2000, the report found, the growth in the unauthorized population had averaged 500,000 per year. In 2005, Mexican migrants represented 56 per cent of the total unauthorized population in the US. Later this week Mr Bush will meet Vicente Fox, President of Mexico, in Cancun, where immigration tensions will be discussed.
“About 85 per cent of the illegal immigrants are from Mexico and most are sent back home within 24 hours,” said Mr Bush, discussing US efforts to tighten border security.