Bush says he wants immigration deal

Updated on Mar 13, 2007 11:27 AM IST
The US president, however, defended raids against illegal immigrants.
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Reuters | By, Guatemala City

President George W Bush said on Monday that he wants a breakthrough on US immigration reform by August but defended raids against illegal immigrants, a policy that drew criticism during his tour of Latin America.

Bush discussed immigration and regional efforts against drug trafficking with Guatemalan President Oscar Berger after promoting free trade and US anti-poverty efforts in a trip to the Mayan highlands.

US immigration policies are unpopular across much of Latin America, helping leftist leaders gain sway in the region. Berger, a conservative ally on most issues, made clear he also opposed Bush's stance on immigration.

"Once in a while differences of opinion arise, for example regarding the issue of migrants and particularly those who have been deported without clear justification," Berger said, standing next to Bush.

About 18,000 Guatemalan illegal immigrants were deported from the United States last year, an increase of 60 per cent from 2005. Most were caught soon after crossing the US border but a quarter had been in the country more than a year.

In New Bedford, Mass., dozens of young children were stranded at schools and with baby sitters last week after their parents were rounded up by federal authorities who raided a leather goods maker suspected of hiring illegal immigrants. Most were from Guatemala and El Salvador.

"The United States will enforce our laws," Bush told reporters in defending the raids.

But he said he hoped to get the Democratic-led Congress to make significant strides toward an immigration overhaul, including a temporary guest worker program, in coming months.

"As I told the president, it seems like, to me, we've got to get this done by August. I hope so," Bush said.

He failed to get an overhaul through the Republican-led Congress last year due to conservative concerns about a porous US-Mexico border.

Whether Democrats in an uproar about the Iraq war will agree to an immigration deal is uncertain.

Border fence

Bush defended plans to seal off parts of the border with Mexico with a fence, saying it would give skeptical lawmakers confidence to back the guest worker program for immigrants.

He also pushed for a regional deal to share information about increasingly powerful smuggling gangs who move drugs through Central America and Mexico into the United States.

Bush, held in deep suspicion among many in Latin America, earlier promoted free trade and social justice on a day out in the Guatemalan countryside.

Wearing a multi-colored traditional jacket, he lent a hand at the Labradores Mayas Packing Station cooperative begun by an indigenous farmer in the town of Chirijuyu.

It was the penultimate stop on Bush's five-nation, Latin American tour, a trip in which he has been dogged along the way by thunderous denunciations from his leftist nemesis in the region, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Residents of the Guatemalan town of Santa Cruz Balanya, many dressed in colorful flowing dresses or ponchos and straw hats, greeted the U.S. president with banners of welcome and a few shouts of "Viva Bush".

But elsewhere in Guatemala, where many remember US support for military repression during a long civil war, street protesters told Bush to go home.

Scuffles broke out between riot police and indigenous farmers opposed to Bush's visit to the Iximche ruins, the ancient capital of the Kaqchikel Mayan people.

"We are protesting against the world's biggest murderer stepping onto our sacred place. For us it is painful and an enormous offense," said indigenous leader Jorge Morales Toj.

Bush arrives in the southeastern Mexican city of Merida on Monday night. He will meet President Felipe Calderon and offer US support for Mexico's military campaign against violent drug gangs.

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