WASHINGTON -- President Bush argued yesterday for his temporary-worker plan for foreigners, hoping to win over skeptical conservatives with get-tough promises about illegal immigration.
''We're going to get control of our borders and make this country safer for all our citizens," Bush said. He commented as he signed into law a $32 billion homeland security bill that has large increases for patrolling borders but fewer grants for local first-responders and a freeze in transit security funding.
Hours earlier, administration officials appeared on Capitol Hill to promote the guest-worker plan, saying action is needed beyond improving border patrols to stem the flow of illegal immigrants.
''We're going to need more than just brute enforcement," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the Senate Judiciary Committee. ''We're going to need a temporary-worker program as well."
Bush introduced a plan last year that would allow undocumented workers to get three-year work visas. They could extend that for another three years, but would then have to return to their home countries for a year to apply for a new work permit.
The president called his proposal a necessity for an economy that needs employees for jobs many Americans don't want.
''I'm going to work with members of Congress to create a program that can provide for our economy's labor needs without harming American workers, without providing amnesty, and that will improve our ability to control our borders," Bush said.
Seeking to mollify balky Republicans, Bush emphasized border-control measures, saying the bill he signed would help the deportation of illegal immigrants and would provide more border patrol agents, new technologies, and expanded detention centers.
GOP leaders in both the House and Senate have suggested that Congress should first take up the enforcement issue, putting off debate on the more complex issues of undocumented workers and the demand for low-skilled labor in this country.
But Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania and Judiciary Committee chairman, said that with reports of larger numbers of illegal immigrants -- often estimated at about 11 million -- than legal immigrants, his panel would address comprehensive change. ''It is a matter of very, very substantial urgency," he said.
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said workers accepted into the program would be issued tamper-resistant cards that would allow them to cross US borders.
''Those who come forward will not be offered an automatic pass to citizenship and should be expected to pay a substantial fine or penalty to participate in the temporary program," she said.
Several members of the committee are sponsoring legislation that, in addition to strengthening border security and workplace enforcement, would set up guest-worker programs.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, with Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, has a bill that would provide visas for up to six years, after which the worker must either leave the country or be in the pipeline for a green card.
Republican Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona have a rival bill that would require illegal immigrants to return to their home country to apply for the temporary-worker program.
Speaking at a Chamber of Commerce forum on illegal immigration yesterday, McCain said any plan centered on sending illegal immigrants home ignores that businesses rely on immigrant labor and that many immigrants have children born in the United States, who are citizens.
Chertoff also pledged to end the ''catch and release" policy that has allowed tens of thousands of non-Mexican illegal immigrants to disappear within the United States.
''Return every single illegal entrant -- no exceptions," Chertoff said to the committee.
Chertoff said the nearly 900,000 Mexicans who are caught entering United States every year are returned immediately to Mexico, ''but other parts of the system have nearly collapsed under the weight of numbers."
He agreed with Kennedy that trying to deport all illegal immigrants would not be possible. ''It would take billions and billions and billions of dollars to do it," Chertoff said.