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Immigration Battle Looms In Congress

Anticipating turbulent debate over immigration, President Bush urged Congress on Thursday to grapple with the emotional issue in a way that avoids pitting groups against each other.

The Senate is to take up immigration next week — and the president and the leader of his party are starting out with different ideas about the best way to address the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country.

Mr. Bush wants Congress to create a program to allow foreigners to gain legal status in the United States 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.

Mr. Bush said Thursday that his message is: "If you are doing a job that Americans won't do, you're welcome here for a period of time to do that job."

Immigration is a divisive issue for the country, and Republicans in particular. It splits two main GOP constituent groups — businesses and social conservatives.

The president is working hand-in-hand with employers who want cheap labor to clean hotel rooms, pick crops and do other tasks that they say keep their businesses competitive. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., says he understands those economic issues, but his focus is on the main concern voiced by the social conservatives — national security.

"The most important thing is that we keep our borders safe, we keep America safe," said Frist spokeswoman Amy Call. "It's obvious there are drugs, there are criminals coming through those borders. There are also people from known terrorist organizations coming through those borders."

The public appears to be more on the side of tougher border control. Three-quarters of respondents to a Time magazine poll in January said the United States is not doing enough to keep illegal immigrants from entering the country. Roughly the same amount said they favor a guest worker program for illegal immigrants, but 46 percent said those workers should have to return first to their native countries and apply. About 50 percent favored deporting all illegal immigrants.

Frist's bill sidesteps the question of temporary work permits and would tighten borders, add Border Patrol agents and punish employers who hire illegal immigrants. He has left open the possibility of replacing his legislation with a measure being drafted by the Senate Judiciary Committee that includes a guest worker program.

"We've scheduled two weeks of debate," his spokeswoman said, underscoring the divisiveness of the issue. "We need all two weeks."

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. So has Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who said legislation seeking to criminalize undocumented immigrants is not in line with Republicans' stated support for faith and values and "would literally criminalize the Good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself."

The president's spokesman would not say whether Mr. Bush was referring to such comments or the filibuster threat when he called for a "serious debate" that respects people of all backgrounds.

"When we discuss this debate, it must be done in a civil way," Mr. Bush said after he, Vice President Dick Cheney and top strategist Karl Rove met with groups who are allied with him in the debate. "It must be done in a way that brings dignity to the process. It must be done in a way that doesn't pit people against another."

While the Senate Judiciary Committee considers the issue Monday, Mr. Bush plans to attend a citizenship ceremony in Washington. Supporters of tighter border controls planned demonstrations Monday in Washington and Boston.

On Friday, about 150 people demonstrated against the immigration bill across the street from the downtown Indianapolis auditorium where Mr. Bush planned to address a political fund-raiser. Some motorists honked their horns as they drove by.

Another 50 people were demonstrating against the war in Iraq, while about seven Indiana University students were staging a counter-protest in support of the president.

In Los Angeles, high school students walked out of class Friday morning to protest the immigration bill.

Some 150 Huntington Park High School students left their classrooms and marched to South Gate High School, hoping to convince students at that school to also walk out.

TV images show a line of students over a half-mile long, carrying flags and swarming television camera operators. The march comes a day before a larger rally planned in L.A. for Saturday, when immigrant-rights groups will gather to protest the legislation.

On Thursday, more than 10,000 people filled the streets of Milwaukee Thursday for what was billed as "A Day Without Latinos" to protest efforts to target undocumented workers.

"We came to work, not to be discriminated against," said Juan Hernandez, who said his boss gave him and more than a dozen other restaurant workers permission to join the protest. "We want to be equal."