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June 9, 2005, 12:53AM

DeLay says Bush wants to clarify his immigration, border proposals

The White House weighs how best to package and sell the reforms that have yet to gain traction

Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - President Bush conceded that he has been unclear about his immigration reform proposals and may avoid pushing an overhaul in a single bill, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said after an hourlong meeting with the president Wednesday.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and other White House allies have been fashioning comprehensive legislation to grant "guest worker" status in the United States to Mexicans and other immigrants and to make other changes in immigration law.

But DeLay said at his weekly meeting with reporters that he and Bush now are unsure whether to deal with immigration in a massive bill.

"A big bill confuses things," said DeLay, R-Sugar Land.

DeLay said Bush admitted "he hasn't done a good job being clear about where he is coming from.

"It became clear to him that he has to articulate his position more clearly and that's what he intends to do," DeLay said.

The president's concession came during a meeting with House and Senate Republican leaders at the White House during which they discussed Congress' summer agenda.

As Texas governor and candidate for president, Bush has urged compassion for Spanish-speaking immigrants who enter the country illegally to seek jobs to support their families. He has also fostered ties with the Mexican government.

But after promising to pass immigration reform, he has made little progress.

He has not substantively discussed the issue publicly since March, and in a Rose Garden news conference on May 31, he left immigration and border security off his list of priorities for Congress.

'Urgent objectives'
Even so, White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said Wednesday both remain urgent objectives for Bush.

''The president recognizes that we need to be placing as much emphasis on communicating our ongoing efforts to strengthen border security as we are immigration reform," she said.

Healy would not comment on the summation of Bush's comments by DeLay, whom the White House has called a friend and crucial legislative partner.

Bush, the spokeswoman said, told lawmakers "he wants to continue working with them to build upon the steps we have taken to better protect our borders."

No decisions have been made on how the House will deal with immigration reform, but it likely will be next year before any measure is considered, DeLay spokeswoman Shannon Flaherty said.

First and foremost, DeLay said, Congress needs to pass tough border security laws and measures that demand stricter enforcement of current immigration regulations.

There has been some movement on that front.

In May, the president signed a spending bill for funding of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan that included reforms making it virtually impossible for people unable to prove legal U.S. residency to receive driver's licenses.

DeLay said he and the president agree that a guest worker program, a concept that has divided Republican lawmakers, should not give amnesty to illegal immigrants or give credit to people who have broken the law.

In contrast, an immigration reform bill introduced last month by heavyweight senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., would create a guest worker program that allows illegal workers to earn citizenship.

An updated immigration reform bill from Cornyn, who is working with Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., is expected to be unveiled early next month.

Cornyn spokesman Don Stewart said the comments from DeLay and the president are consistent with what the senators are trying to accomplish. Cornyn and Kyl have discussed immigration reform with Bush, who has not endorsed a particular bill.

"There has not been a laying on of hands," Cornyn said.

The president's guest worker plan would allow three-year, renewable visas to workers and incentives for them to return to their home countries after six years.

Guest workers could apply for legal residence without getting priority over others seeking citizenship.

The Cornyn bill
Only slivers of the Cornyn bill have been released: It would authorize 10,000 new Border Patrol agents and 1,000 new immigration inspectors during the next five years and commit an additional $500 million between 2006 and 2010 for equipment such as unmanned aerial vehicles, camera poles, sensors and other technologies to help tighten the borders.

In December, Bush signed a bill providing for the 10,000 border agents. But his proposed 2006 budget unveiled in February funds only 210.

An estimated 11 million immigrants are in the United States illegally.