Bush accused conservative opponents of the bill of engaging in "empty political rhetoric." "I know there are some people out there hollering and saying, kick them out. That is simply unrealistic. It won't work," the president said. "If you want to scare the American people, what you say is, the bill is an amnesty bill. It's not an amnesty bill. That's empty political rhetoric, trying to frighten our fellow citizens."
Under the deal struck this month between the White House and a bipartisan group of senators, workers seeking legal status would need to pay fines and back taxes and eventually demonstrate proficiency in English.
Border security also would need to be improved before other parts of the immigration package — including a temporary-worker program and legal status for some undocumented workers — can take effect.
One reason Bush chose to speak to law enforcement trainees at this federal facility about 60 miles south of Savannah was to underscore his commitment to improved border controls. The bill would increase the number of border agents to 20,000, add hundreds of miles of fencing and vehicle barriers, and build 105 more surveillance towers.
"A lot of Americans are skeptical about immigration reform primarily because they don't think the government can fix the problems," Bush said. "And my answer to the skeptics is … give us a chance to fix this problem."
White House officials declined to say whether the president had made progress in persuading members of his own party to support the deal.
"I'm not going to get into nose counting right now," said White House spokesman Tony Snow. "We have been inviting folks to take a look. And I think the more they hear, the more they're going to be inclined to support it."
The immigration package survived several legislative challenges last week, its first on the floor of the Senate. The administration and other supporters say they are optimistic that the Senate will pass the bill with its central compromise intact: legal status for many of those already here in exchange for shifting from family unification toward a more merit-based system.
The bill's fate in the House of Representatives is less certain.
Last year, an immigration overhaul package squeaked past the Senate only to die in the House. This year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has said the White House needs to deliver 70 Republican votes or the bill will not make it to the president's desk.
"I appreciate the Republicans and Democrats in the United States Senate … who put politics aside and put courage first to work on a comprehensive bill," Bush said. "It takes a lot of courage in the face of some of the criticism in the political world to do what's right, not what's comfortable. And what's right is to fix this system now before it's too late."
The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center trains agents who serve in 83 federal agencies, including those who work for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. On a tour of the facility before his speech, Bush watched three training simulations, including a border crossing where vehicle traffic was screened. He also passed through a mock immigration-control point, getting his fingerprints taken.
"Our nation depends on our federal agents to enforce our immigration laws at the border and across the country," Bush said in his speech.
Instead of making the immigration system more unwieldy, Bush argued that the new guest worker program would allow Border Patrol agents to concentrate on terrorists and other dangerous border-crossers instead of people who are just trying to get a job.
Under that program, up to 200,000 temporary workers would be allowed in the U.S. each year, but could not become permanent residents.
"If you're interested in securing the border, wouldn't you rather have Border Patrol agents chasing down terrorists and gun-runners and dope-runners as opposed to people who are coming to do jobs Americans aren't doing?" Bush asked. "A temporary-worker plan, that is truly temporary, is going to make it easier for us to enforce the border."