U.S. President George W. Bush sharply challenged critics of his stalled immigration overhaul efforts on Thursday, suggesting that failure to pass a guest worker program could trigger a labor shortage in the United States.
At a town-hall style meeting, Bush also rebuffed a question about whether he would consider pardoning two U.S. Border Patrol agents in prison for the cover-up of the shooting of a drug trafficker in Texas.
"No, I won't make you that promise," Bush said. Many Republicans in Congress have said the men should not have been convicted.
"I know it's an emotional issue but people need to look at the facts. These men were convicted by a jury of their peers after listening to the facts" as presented by U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton, Bush said.
Bush took questions for more than an hour. He said he was disappointed about his immigration bill's demise in the Senate and repeated his support for a guest worker program and a path toward citizenship for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the United States.
Without such a program, and with stricter enforcement of the U.S.-Mexico border, "I can make you a prediction ... that pretty shortly people are going to be knocking on people's doors saying `Man we're running out of workers,"' Bush said.
When Bush was asked about whether he would consider pardoning the two border patrol agents, he seemed briefly taken aback.
"I'm not going to make that kind of promise in a forum like this, obviously," he said.
The issue of presidential pardons has been prominent since Bush last month commuted the 30-month jail sentence of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Bush had called the sentence "excessive."
The border patrol case has figured in the debate over overhauling immigration law. And calls for executive clemency have come from many Republican lawmakers. Former agents Ignacio Ramos and Alonso Compean are serving 11- and 12-year federal prison sentences, respectively, for the 2005 shooting.