WASHINGTON — Immigrant and labor groups on Tuesday applauded President Bush’s position speech on immigration reform, as Congress prepares to tackle the controversial issue anew.

In an attempt to shore up a major breach in the Republi­can party on immigration reform, Bush said in a televised address to the nation Monday night that he does not support massive deportation of the estimated 11 million to 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S.

“Some in this country argue that the solution is to deport every illegal immigrant and that any proposal short of this amounts to amnesty,” said Bush. “I disagree. It is neither wise, nor realistic to round up millions of people, many with deep roots in the United States, and send them across the border.”

Bush said there is a “rational middle ground between an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant, and a program of mass deportation.” He said illegal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for years and want to stay in the country legally should pay a “meaningful penalty” for breaking the law, pay taxes, learn English and be able to apply for citizenship, though approval would not be “automatic.”

Immigrants and advocacy and labor groups have held huge demonstrations in the past few months to protest a House bill passed in December that focuses on enforcement of immigration laws that, if enacted, would make it a felony for illegal immigrants to be in the country without documentation.

“We are really pleased that the president came out in favor of earned citizenship for the millions of undocumented workers currently in the country,” said Tom Snyder, national political director for UNITE HERE, which represents 400,000 workers in the textile, apparel, hotel and restaurant sectors. “That was an important thing for him to say.”

Snyder said provisions in the Senate bill laying out a path to citizenship for undocumented workers based on the number of years they have worked in the U.S. is a “good starting point,” but noted the union will press for the inclusion of more undocumented workers in the eligibility of citizenship procedures.

Flavia Jimenez, an immigration policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, said Tuesday, “We are pleasantly surprised at the positive tone of President Bush’s speech last night. We do not agree with 100 percent of what was said, but the notion of a comprehensive approach to the problem, the notion of earned legalization for undocumented workers here and the temporary worker program, we are in agreement with.”

This story first appeared in the May 17, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Bush’s speech came as the Senate took up a comprehensive immigration reform package this week where a heated debate centered on border enforcement and legalizing the status of illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Senate leaders recently reached a deal to resurrect a broad immigration bill and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R., Tenn.) has scheduled two weeks of debate in an effort to pass a bill before the Memorial Day recess. If the Senate passes a bill, it will go to a conference committee, where a battle over reconciling the House and Senate bills will take place. Frist has said the Senate will send 14 Republicans and 12 Democrats to negotiate with the House.

Meanwhile, the Senate on Tuesday defeated an amendment offered by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.) that would have delayed earned citizenship until the Homeland Security secretary confirmed that borders are secure.