President George W. Bush made his first political speech on home soil, Nov. 28, after two weeks of travel abroad and a Thanksgiving retreat at his Texas ranch. The speech followed tumultuous and bitter struggle between Republicans and Democrats in both houses of Congress over the war in Iraq, budget cuts in social programs and tax breaks for the rich, with opinion polls showing Bush’s disapproval rating around 60 percent.

The president did not address these major issues, although growing millions of Americans oppose his right-wing agenda. Rather, he made the subject immigration, choosing Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Ariz., as his venue.

The time, place and circumstance of Bush’s speech are at least as important as the content of his proposals. These differ little from his last major speech on immigration in early January 2004. No legislative language — much less specific legislation — was proposed. Instead, Bush called for a sharper crackdown on immigrants on the border and in the interior, and an employer-oriented temporary worker program. The air force base venue reinforced the emphasis on repression.

The major reason for the speech, however, was the escalating 2006 election battle for control of Congress. In this context Bush effectively gave a green light for the Republican-led Senate and House of Representatives to take on the issue as a matter of both electoral propaganda and actual policy.

The Republican leadership in the House is taking the lead in this regard with a vengeance. On Dec. 6, Reps. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and Peter King (R-N.Y.), chair of the Homeland Security Committee, jointly introduced HR 4437, the Border And Immigration Enforcement Act of 2005, which is expected to blitz through the House within two weeks so that congressional Republicans will have something to discuss with constituents during the holiday break besides Iraq, Social Security, budget cuts and other unpopular GOP policies.

The bill is a chilling list of repressive proposals whose outline alone runs for 18 pages, with 63 sections and more subsections. It pointedly excludes temporary worker proposals and concentrates on increasing staff and resources in a militaristic tightening of the border, “interior” enforcement severely restricting civil rights and liberties, and a six-year program to escalate surveillance of virtually all hiring.

After a first reading of the outline, Douglas Rivlin, director of communications for the National Immigration Forum, said it includes “just about every [anti-immigrant] measure short of restricting birth right citizenship, building a wall around the borders, and putting military troops at the border.” He urged immigrant rights supporters to quickly call their representatives to oppose it.

Many immigrant rights supporters are looking for a more responsible bipartisan approach to the issue in the Senate, where electoral pressures are less. Last week Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) unveiled his proposals, less draconian than the House version, and including a temporary worker program with citizenship possible for immigrant workers after 11 years. Specter is expected to begin moving his committee on the issue in February or March.

Labor, civil rights, immigrant rights, Latino, Asian Pacific American and other groups have heretofore supported a bipartisan bill by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) featuring some increased enforcement together with legalization provisions, temporary work programs and a “clear path” to citizenship. Specter’s version includes some of those provisions along with those of a bill by Republicans John Cornyn (Texas) and Jon Kyl (Ariz.).

Though right-wing Republicans in the House, Senate and White House differ over policy, all clearly seek to use the issue in the 2006 elections. Prospects for strong pro-immigrant provisions are not good. Immigrant rights forces find themselves on the defensive.

But a defensive posture should not be the only approach of immigrant rights forces to the political struggle, warns Arnoldo Garcia of the National Network for Immigrant Rights. Garcia says progressive forces also need to advocate democratic solutions like border demilitarization, repeal of employer sanctions, labor and civil rights protections, closing the 10-year backlog of immigration applications, and more options for legal residency and citizenship.

“The easiest and fairest way to control the border is with more legalization,” Garcia said.