US President George W. Bush waded deeper into the national debate about illegal immigration on Monday evening, signaling his intention to send 6,000 National Guard troops to the country's massive southern border and asking the nation to support a guest worker program that he believes will help take pressure off the border.
"We do not yet have full control of the border and I am determined to change that," Bush said in a nationally broadcast speech.
The drastic move comes at a time that the National Guard -- a half-a-million strong cadre of reserve troops under the command of state governors -- are already stretched thin in Iraq, Afghanistan, and for domestic emergencies, critics said. It was also a bold move by a weakened president with a popularity rating hovering in the 30th percentile.
But his speech expressed a mood of urgency in the US capital over the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. Last year alone, 1.2 million people were arrested for illegal entry, 85 per cent of them Mexicans. An estimated half a million manage to elude detection every year.
Hundreds die every year crossing the rugged, dry region along the border, or are abandoned by high-priced fixers.
Opposition Democrats said sending thousands of troops to the Mexican border would strain US forces already under pressure because of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And some in Bush's own Republican party said that they feared the president was not being tough enough on illegal immigration.
Bush said up to 6,000 National Guard troops could be deployed on the southern border beginning next month.
The soldiers would not arrest migrants, but instead would provide ancillary services such as road and vehicle repair, fence building and electronic surveillance.
By the time the two-year period was up the federal government would increase the number of Border Patrol agents to 6,000, more than doubling their numbers from the time he first took office.
Bush also said that any effort to tighten US borders must be coupled with a temporary guest-worker program for undocumented immigrants living in the country, more than half of whom are from Mexico.
Any guest worker program would be part of a comprehensive immigration reform that would also provide a pathway to citizenship for many workers living "in the shadows of our society," he said.
Millions of legal and illegal migrants and their supporters have taken to the streets in protests in recent weeks demanding a less restrictive immigration policy.
They are countered by groups like the Minutemen, citizen vigilantes who carry out their own patrols of the border and denounce illegal immigrants.
Bush said his temporary worker proposal "would create a legal path for foreign workers to enter our country in an orderly way, for a limited period of time," and "would give honest immigrants a way to provide for their families while respecting the law."
A majority of the US public supports Bush's approach.
A Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll last month showed 63 percent of US adults support proposals to give legal status to undocumented workers and legislation that combines tougher enforcement of immigration laws with new temporary-worker programs, Bloomberg financial news service reported.
Immigration reform in Congress has been mired for months in partisan bickering.