San Diego Union Tribune

October 31, 2004

Kerry, Bush mix messages on immigration

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – The thorny topic of illegal immigration has received scant attention during this year's presidential campaign. But President Bush and Sen. John Kerry were obliged to handle the issue, if only briefly, when moderator Bob Schieffer raised it at their Oct. 13 debate in Arizona.

Both men sent deliberately mixed signals. They reached out to Latino groups and other immigrant advocates by expressing admiration for the immigrants themselves.

Yet both gave a nod to public anxiety about immigration and border security by declaring they would not coddle those who trampled the law.

But within these general similarities, there are important differences in their positions, reflecting crosscurrents within their parties.

Bush's Republicans include both business interests who employ millions of illegal immigrants and cultural conservatives alarmed at the cultural and political changes the immigrants portend.

Kerry's Democrats have both Latino rights groups and middle-class workers alarmed at the expansion of an underclass of poorly educated and unskilled immigrant workers.

At the debate, Bush praised Mexican workers who come illegally to the United States to escape brutal economic conditions in their own country.

"You're going to come here if you're worth your salt, if you want to put food on the table for your families," Bush said. He frequently has declared, "Family values don't stop at the Rio Grande."

Yet he emphasized that his compassion had limits.

"It's very important for our citizens to also know that I don't believe we ought to have amnesty," Bush told the crowd in Arizona. "I don't think we ought to reward illegal behavior."

Bush proposes a guest-worker program that would allow immigrant workers and their families to live in the country for up to six years, then require that they go home – unless they find a way into an already clogged line for permanent residence.

He says they should receive no special treatment in that line, though he has favored more visas to make the line move more quickly.

Kerry came down hard at the debate with a call to "toughen up our borders" and "crack down on illegal hiring." It is the U.S. work site that is the economic magnet drawing millions of immigrants to the clandestine crossing, mostly from Latin America.

Yet he also called for a sweeping program that would offer citizenship to "people who have been here for a long time" and stayed on the right side of other laws.

Bush first presented his program in a January speech in the White House, delighting the business wing of the Republican Party by offering to lay a cornucopia of foreign "willing workers" at the door of the work site.

But when key parts of his conservative base roared in protest, he quickly shelved it. While he hoped to court the expanding pool of Latino voters, he was unwilling to challenge those whose support he could not afford to lose.

Conservative activist Paul Weyrich put the issue into an election-year frame. Warning that Bush's plan "may cause enough of his coalition to vote for a third party or to stay at home," he declared, "I believe his re-election is endangered if the race turns out to be close."

Immigration expert Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University mocks the Bush proposal as "a shell game" that deliberately ignores attachments that immigrant families would form during their six years in the United States.

"It sort of implies that five years out we'll pass a law to keep you here," he said.

Lowell also warned that Bush's proposal would create vast new immigration networks far beyond the countries that now provide the majority of illegal immigrants.

But Lowell is no less critical of Kerry, whom he accused of "posturing to show that he can be tough" on illegal immigration by cracking down on employers of illegals.

Congress outlawed the deliberate hiring of illegals in the 1986 legislation that sought to balance this "toughness" with an amnesty for nearly 3 million immigrants.

"The problem is that employer sanctions have gone without serious enforcement for a long time because the Congress of which Kerry is a part has not supported them," Lowell said. "They have essentially ignored enforcement."

Kerry has vowed to send an immigration bill to Congress during the first 100 days of his presidency that would provide for sweeping legalization.

He has also pledged his support for a proposal that would encourage states to charge in-state college tuition to students who are here illegally, many of them having graduated from U.S. elementary and high schools.

He also favors a proposal in Congress that would give farmers easier access to foreign workers, while offering a path to citizenship to foreign workers who perform a certain amount of work in the fields.

The White House has refused to take a stand on these proposals, which have encountered strenuous resistance within the Bush political base.

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