WASHINGTON -- President Bush laid down his marker in the intense congressional fight over immigration yesterday, declaring that it's ''unrealistic" for lawmakers to undertake any legislative proposal that includes the mass deportation of the millions of foreigners living illegally in the United States.
''I know this is an emotional debate," Bush said in a speech before the Orange County Business Council in California. ''But one thing we cannot lose sight of is that we're talking about human beings -- decent human beings that need to be treated with respect. Massive deportation of the people here is unrealistic. It's just not going to work."
Hoping to spur Congress to make sweeping changes this year that would shut down the ''underground industry" of illegal labor, Bush praised a stalled Senate proposal that would allow most undocumented immigrants to stay in the country legally and work toward citizenship. The Senate plan, sidetracked by last-minute partisan bickering, would allow the undocumented who have been in the United States at least five years to stay if they pass a criminal background check, learn English, and pay a fine and back taxes.
At the same time, Bush took aim at a rival plan GOP leaders pushed through in the House of Representatives last year. The target of massive protests by immigrants across the United States in recent weeks, the House bill focuses on strengthening the nation's borders, penalizing employers who hire undocumented workers, and making illegal entry into the country a felony punishable by deportation.
''You can hear people out there hollering that [deportation] is going to work," Bush said. ''It's not going to work."
Bush made his comments on the eve of the Senate's return from a two-week Easter recess. Before adjourning, the chamber was on the verge of passing a bill that would create a new guest-worker system for future immigrants while allowing most undocumented workers to stay legally in the country.
But the Senate's effort faltered amid disputes over amendments to the bill, and prospects of passing major changes to immigration laws before midterm congressional elections in November dimmed significantly.
Despite Bush's words, activists who favor a tougher approach to immigration said yesterday they will continue to push Congress to back the House's version of an immigration bill.
Susan Wysoki, a spokeswoman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the president is ''ignoring the facts" when he suggests that a widespread crackdown would burden the government with massive deportations. Instead, getting tough with businesses would persuade undocumented workers to leave the country, essentially ''deporting themselves," she said.
''Employers really need to feel the heat on this issue," Wysoki said. ''When the work is not available to illegal immigrants, they will go home."
Bush's West Coast trip, which concluded yesterday, has been an opportunity for the president to revive his low opinion poll ratings and his languishing second-term domestic agenda, including an overhaul of the nation's immigration system.
Although the House and Senate have been working on legislation to strengthen control of the nation's borders, they have taken different approaches to the question of what to do about the undocumented immigrants -- estimated to number between 11 million and 12 million -- who are already here.
The Senate plan -- based on a proposal drafted by John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts -- is backed by a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats.
The Senate plan would allow most undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States at least five years to stay. Those who have been here two to five years would have to leave, but could then return legally as temporary workers. Those who crossed the border less than two years ago would be deported, but could get in line with everyone else for the new guest-worker permits. But a more conservative faction of law-and-order Senate conservatives prefers the House bill.
That bill -- whose champions include House Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Representative Tom Tancredo, Republican of Colorado -- bypasses guest-worker and citizenship provisions and focuses on stopping the flow of migrants, expelling millions and constructing a massive fence along the Mexican border.
The immigration issue has driven a wedge through many political coalitions that normally work together.
Business interests and their Republican allies, for example, generally support leniency for undocumented immigrants, who provide an abundant supply of cheap labor. The GOP's populists and law-and-order factions, however, oppose any plan that allows more immigrants to stay in the country, deriding any such plan as amnesty for law-breakers.
Among Democrats, some liberals and civil rights groups have tended to support the immigrants, but some in organized labor -- a traditional Democratic ally -- contend that adding a guest worker program to the national labor pool would help drive down wages for working-class Americans.
Although Bush's support for immigrants dates back to his time as Texas governor, he has recently sought to use national security to frame the issue. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush said, the country must control the borders and do everything to stop human smuggling rings.
But Bush has also sought to mollify immigration critics. Yesterday he talked about putting more agents on the border, detaining the undocumented in holding prisons if they cannot be returned immediately and cracking down on employers using existing laws.
Also yesterday, authorities announced they had arrested 183 undocumented immigrants in the past week in Florida, the state's largets roundup ever.