June 9, 2006

Bush promotes immigration reform at Hispanic prayer breakfast

By Austin B. Bogues
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON - Moments after making remarks about the death of Iraqi insurgency leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, President Bush switched gears and promoted his immigration reform agenda at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast.

“There’s a reasonable way to uphold our laws and treat people with respect,” Bush said, “and that is this: if you’ve paid your taxes, you’ve been here for a while, you can prove that you’ve been working, you’ve got a clean background; if you want to become a citizen, you pay a fine, you learn English, you learn the values and ideals of America that have made us one nation under God.”

Bush did not once mention the death of al-Zarqawi. In his Rose Garden statement at 7:30 a.m., Bush said, “Now Zarqawi has met his end, and this violent man will never murder again. Iraqis can be justly proud of their new government and its early steps to improve their security.”

The breakfast at the J.W. Marriott Hotel a few blocks away, was attended by several members of Congress and other government officials, including Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.; Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.; Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.; and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Kennedy and Reid spoke to the group.

“We must protect our communities and our nation with laws that are just and fair,” Kennedy said. “But we must also provide a path for honest, hardworking people to emerge from the shadows and earn the privilege of American citizenship.”

The Senate passed an immigration reform bill written by Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Mel Martinez, R-Fla., last month after weeks of contentious debate.

While introducing Kennedy, Luis Cortes Jr., president of Esperanza USA, expressed his discontent that the Senate had not included provisions from a bill proposed by Kennedy and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the final bill.

The McCain-Kennedy bill would have allowed all undocumented workers in the country to have a path toward citizenship. The Hagel-Martinez bill would allow only those workers who have been in the country more than five years to get on the path to naturalization.

“That didn’t happen,” Cortes said. “We now have the Hagel-Martinez bill, which we’re going to try consolidate with something called a Sensenbrenner bill.”

When Cortes mentioned the likely compromise with the harsher House bill, some members of the audience booed “That is correct,” Cortes said, “but we’re not going to do that here – this is the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast.”

He was referring to the bill sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., that the House passed last year that would make all illegal immigrants felons. The House and Senate will now move to conference committee to negotiate a compromise.

“There are those here in Washington who say, why don’t we just find the folks and send them home,” Bush said. “That isn’t going to work. That’s not a good idea. It sounds simple; it’s impractical.”

Esperanza USA is a network of Hispanic churches and religious groups that has organized the prayer breakfast for about 750 people since 2002.

The Republican party has made efforts to gain Hispanic votes, but reforming immigration has challenged the party to cater to its conservative base without alienating its growing bloc of Hispanic voters. In the 2004 election, Bush received 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. Bush has appointed many Hispanics to high profile positions, including Gonzales and Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez.

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