San Diego Union Tribune

January 31, 2005

Bush puts immigration reform back on agenda
President's party may lead opposition

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – After a successful re-election campaign in which he largely avoided the divisive subject of immigration, President Bush plans to push Congress this year to approve a massive and controversial guest-worker program.

"This is a system that can be much better, and I'm passionate on it," Bush said last month.

To accomplish his goal, the president will have to navigate a gantlet of immigration interests, pro and con, with some of the toughest opposition coming from his Republican base.

Nevertheless, Bush has set the stage for what could be the most intense national discussion about immigration since Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

That Reagan-era legislation was prompted by record numbers of illegal immigrants. It matched a massive, one-time amnesty for illegal immigrants with criminal sanctions against employers who continued to hire illegal workers.

While 2.7 million illegal immigrants got green cards and were put on the road toward citizenship eligibility, the enforcement part fizzled. In less than two decades, undocumented workers have spread across America like never before, finding jobs in new regions and industries.

Today, the number of people living and working illegally in the United States is estimated at nearly 12 million – more than twice what it was in 1986. And the population is growing.

Bush wants Congress to take a different approach. His plan avoids an amnesty, instead providing temporary legal status to foreign workers. The workers would have to leave the country when their visas expired. In the meantime, their families could join them in the United States, possibly sinking roots in the community, which might complicate their departure later.

Reflecting on this, some observers point to a popular immigration axiom: "There's nothing more permanent than a temporary worker."

Bush's plan goes well beyond anything Congress has seriously considered since the World War II-era "bracero" program. It faces considerable opposition in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Forces on both sides of the issue are trying to gauge whether Bush's call for a massive guest-worker program is mostly lip service designed to win favor from business groups and Hispanic voters or if he intends to spend his political capital pushing the initiative.

Frank Sharry, a veteran of immigration political battles, said he believes Bush is determined to push his plan.

"He's a radical reformer," said Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration group. "He likes to throw the long ball."

If he does, his opponents are ready.

"If the president decides that this is going to be one of his top issues, then we're going to have a fight," said Roy Beck, head of NumbersUSA, an organization that lobbies for tighter immigration laws.

Initial high hopes
Bush's readiness to loosen immigration has been apparent since the earliest days of his presidency.

Shortly after his 2001 inauguration, he visited the ranch of Mexican President Vicente Fox, who had won a dramatic election victory that ended seven decades of one-party rule in Mexico.

Bush brimmed with confidence during a "dos amigos" summit with Fox. Both men liked straight talk and cowboy boots. And neither was inhibited by Congress' long history of caution in dealing with immigration.

"Some people look south and see problems," Bush said. "Not me. I look south and see opportunities and potential."

Bush and Fox assigned top Cabinet officers to fashion an agreement.

Jorge Castaneda, then Mexico's foreign minister, was sure Bush would act.

"We always had the impression that Mexico's number-one friend in Washington and the person who was most pushing for some kind of immigration agreement was President Bush," he said in an interview. "There was no question in my mind ever that that was the case."

Indeed, Bush spoke immigration just as he spoke Spanish – with fearlessness unrestrained by a loose grasp of detail.

"Family values don't stop at the Rio Grande," Bush liked to say. "Immigration is not a problem to be solved; it's an opportunity for all Americans and for our country."

Jeffrey Davidow, U.S. ambassador to Mexico at the time, thinks the Bush White House failed to look carefully before leaping into the crucible of U.S. immigration politics.

"They didn't size up the real possibilities for success on an issue that was so complex and politically volatile," Davidow said.

Reality sets in
Immigration's divisiveness, especially for Republicans, became apparent in an early strategy session of the president's point men in the talks, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.

As they assembled their staffs before a session with the Mexican team, Ashcroft criticized Powell's proposal to put many of the illegal immigrants on a path toward a green card. That driver's license-sized document, one of the most coveted and counterfeited in the world, grants permanent resident status and puts immigrants on a path toward citizenship.

"Oh, Colin, don't talk about green cards," Ashcroft said, according to a member of the U.S. team who asked not to be identified.

Powell slammed the table with his fist and talked of his parents' 1920s immigration from Jamaica.

"That's what my parents did!" he said.

Later, in the session with the Mexicans, Powell waxed nostalgic about his parents' naturalization certificates, drawing in the air an imaginary version of the frame that held the treasured documents in his parents' home.

Ashcroft, on the other hand, asserted America's heritage as a nation of laws.

The attorney general believed no one who had broken immigration laws should receive special immigration status unavailable to those waiting in line to receive one of the million or so green cards the United States gives out every year.

Splitting the difference
When Bush laid out his immigration proposal in January 2004, he tried to split the difference between Powell and Ashcroft.

He flatly opposed amnesty, which he said "encourages the violation of our laws and perpetuates illegal immigration."

But after that bow to anti-immigration factions within his party, he moved to placate immigration advocates by proposing that guest workers be allowed to join the worldwide queue of those waiting for green cards.

And since that wait often stretches for years, he favored boosting green cards from their current annual level of about 1 million. He didn't say how much of an increase he wanted, leaving that and many other key details unresolved.

Employer groups were pleased with the proposal. But many immigration advocates were unimpressed. Cecilia Muñoz of the National Council of La Raza called the president's initiative "extremely disappointing" in its failure to promise a direct path to citizenship.

While the White House expected that criticism, it was stunned at the fury that erupted from Bush's conservative base. NumbersUSA, which uses the Internet to mobilize public support of its Washington lobbying efforts, saw a surge in its membership.

"We were sitting right around 100,000 (members) a year ago," Beck, the group's founder, said at the end of last year. "Now, we have a quarter-million."

Beck's legions and members of other anti-immigration groups flooded Capitol Hill with outrage. A lobbyist for one of many business groups that supports the president's plan heard about it over breakfast with a senator.

"He said the phones just lit up" with protests "and they were kind of stunned by the whole thing," said Craig Brightup, vice president for government relations for the National Roofing Contractors Association. He declined to identify the senator.

The outlook
Bush has placed the immigration initiative back on the agenda. White House officials in recent weeks have been meeting with congressional offices, hoping to find a way to overcome resistance from within the president's party. Bush has sought the support of Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who says he is equally determined to end the chaos at the border.

Bush says he wants "common sense and fairness," insisting that his program would guarantee workers the dignity they deserve as valued participants in our economy.

He also has invoked national security, declaring, "We'd much rather have security guards chasing down terrorists or drug runners or drug smugglers than people coming to work."

But he has yet to flesh out details of his plan.

"I think that's going to be necessary at some point," said former immigration Commissioner Doris Meissner. "The White House ultimately is the key player, given the fact that this is such a big issue within the Republican Party right now."

Most everybody is predicting a tough fight.

"If immigration reforms were easy, they'd have been done a long time ago," said Davidow, the former ambassador.

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