The president described immigrants as vital to the economy, but also pressed for increased border security.
Speaking before an audience of business owners on Thursday, President Bush urged Congress to seek a consensus on immigration reform that balances tougher border security with a temporary worker program for the millions of undocumented workers already in the country.
During his speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, the president said the two approaches, which reflect sharp divisions on the issue in recent bills by the House and Senate, were not contradictory.
"America can be a lawful society and America can be a welcoming society at the same time," Bush said, calling the vast majority of illegal workers decent, hardworking people who are vital to the U.S. economy.
A House bill approved late last year would make illegal workers felons, while clamping down on security at the nation's borders. By contrast, a Senate bill, which passed last month, would create a path to full U.S. citizenship for many of those same workers.
A nationwide survey in April found small-business owners were equally split on the issue, according to the National Federation of Independent Business, a Washington-based lobby group with more than 600,000 members.
"The House and Senate bills will require effort and compromise on both sides," Bush said on Thursday. "It's a difficult task. Yet the difficulty of this task is no excuse for avoiding it."
The president also encouraged employers to check the legality of new hires, yet added they "should not have to act as detectives."
Instead, he again pressed the need for a national employee database and tamper-proof identity cards for legal foreign workers, among other security measures.
A committee of House and Senate lawmakers is expected to take up the competing bills this year.