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Bush stresses border control in immigration debate

Written by: Staff

ARTESIA, N.M., June 6 (Reuters) President George W Bush, hoping to sway conservatives skeptical of his proposed US immigration overhaul, stressed his commitment to tougher border controls today in a swing through New Mexico and Texas.

Taking his immigration case to the front lines, Bush sought to shift the focus away from right-wing complaints that his push for a guest-worker program as part of a broad reform package adds up to amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants.

But as he toured the Border Patrol's training academy in New Mexico, he also stuck to his insistence Congress must pass a comprehensive new law that couples border security with a path to eventual citizenship for many undocumented workers.

''We've got to enforce our borders,'' Bush told trainees as he touted efforts to stem the flow of illegal immigrants across the 2,000-mile (3,200-km) U.S.-Mexico border, including deploying 6,000 National Guard troops to back up the hard-pressed Border Patrol.

Bush said lawmakers trying to reconcile competing Senate and House bills were making progress, although many doubt that it will be possible to push through an immigration overhaul before congressional elections in November.

''There's a growing consensus among all parties and all regions of the country that fundamental reforms are needed,'' he said. ''People are coming to the conclusion we got to do something about a system that isn't working.'' But enforcement was the emphasis in Tuesday's visit to Artesia, which is gearing up to meet Bush's pledge to add 6,000 agents by 2008, increasing the agency's manpower to 18,000.

Watchdog groups have questioned the academy's ability to prepare so many agents in so little time.

Standing with rolled-up sleeves in the sun-baked New Mexico desert, Bush watched a mock search of rail cars for stowaways, a simulated check of bus passengers' documents and the staged arrest of smugglers armed with plastic pistols.

ELECTION-YEAR ISSUE Immigration has divided Republicans in an election year in which they are trying to keep control of Congress, while Bush is struggling with public approval ratings of around 30 percent, the lowest of his presidency.

Bush could once count on rock-solid support from conservatives but their enthusiasm for him has cooled. Anger over his guest-worker proposal plus his handling of the Iraq war and a series of political blunders have taken their toll.

Bush is now trying to build momentum for a Senate immigration bill passed last month with bipartisan support.

It includes tightened border protection plus a temporary worker plan and a mechanism to help illegal immigrants win citizenship, provided they pay fines and back taxes, learn English and maintain a crime-free record.

The Senate bill, however, must now be merged with a harsher House bill that would define the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country as felons, a proposal that has sparked protest marches by Hispanics and their supporters.

Bush said agreement was needed on a ''common-sense middle ground'' in the immigration debate.

Reuters SK VP0207

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