San Diego Union-Tribune

July 17, 2001


White House tones down reports on amnesty
  It places emphasis on guest worker program


WASHINGTON -- Hoping to fend off a wave of false hope among Mexicans and a potential political firestorm from immigration opponents, the Bush administration yesterday played down reports it is considering an
amnesty for as many as 3 million undocumented Mexican immigrants.

The primary focus of a government task force studying border safety issues is a guest worker program -- not amnesty -- said White House spokesman Ari

He said any amnesty policy was part of a larger "work in progress" and said the White House had yet to see an initial report from the task force, expected
this week. President Bush has said he opposes a blanket amnesty like the one awarded by Congress to 2.7 million undocumented immigrants in 1986.

The task force, which is comprised of officials from the State and Justice departments, has been meeting regularly with a similar Mexican task force since Bush met with Mexican President Vicente Fox in February. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft are expected to add their opinions to the report, administration officials said.

The task force is said to be considering several legalization options, including a program that would be phased in over several years. Advisers have told the
Bush administration that legal status for undocumented immigrants could become more widely available through a variety of means, including wider access to employment visas and expediting backlogged family visas.

Fox, who has urged Bush to consider legalization steps, welcomed the talk of amnesty. Speaking yesterday to the Economic Club of Chicago, Fox said he is committed to "as many rights as possible for as many Mexican immigrants as possible as soon as possible."

In recent weeks, Fox and Foreign Minister Jorge Casteņada also have stepped up calls for "regularization" of undocumented Mexican immigrants.
Policy experts consider "regularization" to be a euphemism for amnesty.

When briefing reporters yesterday, Fleischer deflected questions about amnesty and tried to focus on the guest worker program.

He said the program "would focus on such things as preventing adverse effects on U.S. workers, ensuring legal rights and protections for these temporary workers who come to this country and promoting a secure and orderly border."

He said it also "would focus on whether or not there is anything that can be done to regularize their immigration status and to provide them either some
type of temporary or some other type of status that would welcome them into the United States."

U.S. farmers -- particularly those in California -- have been pushing the White House and Congress to expand or create guest worker programs to allow the growers easier access to foreign seasonal workers. Many Latino and immigrant rights groups oppose guest worker programs, citing worker abuses.

An immigration official privately said yesterday that any guest worker program carved out just for Mexicans -- as the task force is now considering -- would anger Central American and Caribbean nations, especially Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. Those countries almost certainly would call for similar programs for their workers, he said.

Faced with potentially enormous political and practical roadblocks, the Bush administration has been moving tentatively on the immigration issue, although
the White House wants something in place when Bush and Fox meet here for a state dinner in September.

In the meantime, immigration advocates are exulting in the recent talk of an amnesty.

Even a preliminary discussion of amnesty is "a real step forward" for immigration advocates, said Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum.

"We have to address Mexican workers who are already in this economy and working hard," Sharry said through a spokesman. "Fox wants to protect his countrymen from being exploited, and Bush understands that the status quo is broken."

Whatever road to immigration reform Bush takes, he will have to juggle the concerns of increasingly powerful Hispanic politicians, an alliance of conservatives who don't want to reward "lawbreakers" with amnesty and
liberals worried about potential guest worker abuses.

"Is this achievable in Congress?" asked Demetrios G. Papademetriou, a migration specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. "The president
will have to advocate, to use some of his political capital and work the classic left-right coalition to make immigration changes possible."

Then there are other, more practical hurdles, experts say.

To carry out the immigration reform options "requires a mechanism in place, but we already have an overwhelmed" Immigration and Naturalization
Service, said Steve Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies.

"Could (Bush) do this all at once? Have a guest worker program, a type of amnesty, and then try to reorganize the INS?" Camarota asked. "There are enormous backlogs as it is, how can you do it all at once? You do everything halfway."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.