WASHINGTON – President Bush will urge passage of comprehensive immigration reform during his sixth State of the Union address tonight.
It will be one of the main themes of the speech.
Bush has called for changing the nation’s immigration laws since he became president in 2001. But some immigrant advocates say the new, Democrat-controlled Congress gives the Republican president his best opportunity to push through a plan to both better secure the nation’s borders and legalize millions of illegal immigrants.
“Look at the list of issues he can get done in the next couple of years, and this is one of those things he might actually be able to do,” said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy organization based in Washington. “Quite frankly, what we need is for him to finally put some muscle into the effort.”
She said she hopes the speech will be the beginning of a push.
Bush will make the nationally televised address as a president beset by political opposition and public anxiety over his Iraq war plans, low approval ratings, a Congress controlled by the other party and a tight budget.
In a nod to these political realities, aides say, Bush intends to give a scaled-down speech that takes on fewer topics and seeks to emphasize common ground with Democrats.
Along with immigration reform, other major topics to be taken up are energy, health care, education and the war on terror.
“He’s going to lay a way forward for Democrats and Republicans to work together on the issues that are atop the stated concerns for all Americans,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said. “So, if you talk about those in a way that gives both parties an opportunity to work together and achieve success, that’s a good and important thing.”
What exactly new Bush might have to say about immigration reform, if anything, has not been revealed.
He has called for a plan that would include a temporary-worker program to match foreign workers with U.S. employers when no Americans can be found to fill those jobs. He said such a plan would enable illegal immigrants who hold jobs to come out of the shadows.
The program he envisions would require the return of the guest workers to their home country after their work period has ended, but the work period could be renewed. Such a plan must be accompanied by efforts to enhance border security, he has said.
Last year, the then-Republican-led Senate approved a comprehensive plan that would legalize millions of illegal immigrants already in the country. But the measure died in the then-GOP-led House amid objections by conservative members of Bush’s party.
While some now suggest a new Congress presents a better opportunity to get a comprehensive immigration measure passed, others caution that reform is still an uphill climb.
“I hope for Arizona’s sake, and the sake of the entire country, that he makes a commitment to the face of Congress to fight for comprehensive immigration reform,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.
Freshman Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., noted that Bush has called for “an immigration system that upholds our laws, reflects our values and serves the interests of our economy.”
But, she said, “He unfortunately has made no progress toward reaching that goal.”
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who plans to again co-sponsor a comprehensive immigration-reform bill in the House, said he, too, wants the president to encourage Congress to pass such a measure.
“Everybody, no matter who they are, is sick of the illegality and porous borders,” said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, who has written extensively as an advocate for immigration reform.
She appeared Thursday at a panel discussion in Washington that included a diverse coalition of immigration-reform advocates.
“Latinos want to see their friends and family able to work with dignity. And soccer moms and dads want to see Congress solve something,” Jacoby said.
But both she and others, including Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., said that just because Congress is now controlled by Democrats, there are no assurances that immigration reform will be easy.
“This is still going to have to be a bipartisan, practical, centrist, up-the-middle, in fact, tough immigration bill,” Jacoby said.
“We’re still going to need 20 Republicans in the Senate and probably 40 Republicans in the House.”
Shadegg said predictions that Democrats will help to see such a plan move through smoothly may underestimate the pressure they will receive from their organized-labor constituencies, which may oppose such things as a guest worker plan.
“It’s not a lay-down that Bush can get what he wants just because Democrats are now in charge,” Shadegg said of immigration reform.
HOW TO WATCH
● When: 7 tonight
● Where: House chamber (left)
● What happens: The Senate and House convene for a joint session. The president talks about his plans for the year.
● On TV: ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, CNN, C-SPAN, MSNBC
● On the Web: Transcript at www.whitehouse.gov/stateofthe union/2007; live coverage at www.usatoday.com; comprehensive coverage here at www.tucsoncitizen.com
The president is expected to address:
● Health care: Bush will propose a tax deduction of $7,500 for individuals and $15,000 for families, regardless of whether they buy their own health insurance or receive medical coverage at work. Health care insurance would be considered taxable income, and people with more generous policies could face tax increases unless they change plans.
● Energy: Bush is expected to call for a sharp escalation of corn-based ethanol as a gasoline blend. He also may seek the power to raise fuel economy standards for passenger cars, probably as part of a plan to offer financial incentives for increasing alternative fuels.
● Education: Bush will push for Congress to renew his education law, No Child Left Behind, which expires this year. Democrats have already signaled their intention to work with him but will expect him to go along with increases in spending.