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Bush calls for Fair Immigration Bill

WASHINGTON – The debate over immigration stretched from the White House to the West Coast as thousands of demonstrators protested proposals to crack down on illegal immigrants.

President Bush, in addressing an issue that has divided his party, underscored America’s immigrant history and called for secure borders and strict immigration enforcement.

Bush also urged Congress to write new immigration law with a guest worker program that could provide legal status — short of citizenship — for some of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

“As we debate the immigration issue, we must remember there are hardworking individuals, doing jobs that Americans will not do, who are contributing to the economic vitality of our country,” Bush said in his weekly radio address.

The House has passed legislation that would make it a felony to be in the U.S. illegally, impose new penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants, and erect fences along one-third of the U.S.-Mexican border. The Senate is to begin debating immigration proposals on Tuesday.

In Los Angeles, thousands of people — some waving and wearing flags of Mexico and other nations — streamed into downtown streets for what was expected to be one of the city’s largest pro-immigrant rallies.

Efforts to get tough on illegal immigration also spurred thousands of people to stage school walkouts, work stoppages and marches on Friday in cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix and Atlanta.

The demonstrations are expected to culminate April 10 in a “National Day of Action” organized by labor, immigration, civil rights and religious groups.

Bush, who plans to attend a naturalization ceremony on Monday in Washington, is bracing for a standoff in the Senate this week before he heads south to Cancun, Mexico, where he’ll discuss immigration with Mexican President Vicente Fox, a supporter of Bush’s guest worker plan.

“America is a nation of immigrants, and we’re also a nation of laws, and our immigration laws are in need of reform,” Bush said.

Bush wants Congress to create a program to let foreigners gain legal status for a set amount of time to do specific jobs. When the time is up, they would be required to return home without an automatic path to citizenship.

“This program would create a legal way to match willing foreign workers with willing American employers to fill jobs that Americans will not do,” he said.

Some critics argue that a guest worker program would create an underclass of foreign workers and stigmatize some jobs associated with foreign labor.

Some Republicans worry that the foreign workers would stay on and become citizens, further straining America’s social service and education systems.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., thinks immigration enforcement, national security and border concerns should drive immigration reform. Frist’s bill, which sidesteps the question of temporary work permits, would tighten borders, add Border Patrol agents and punish employers who hire illegal immigrants.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., backed by labor unions, has said he will do all he can, including filibuster, to thwart Frist’s legislation.

The hottest debate in the Senate will be whether to pass some version of a guest worker program proposed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Their bill would provide up to 400,000 visas in the first year and allow participants, after six years, to seek permanent residency.