WASHINGTON – Congress
and the White House are set to begin another rancorous
season of immigration debate this week as two Bush
administration officials travel to Capitol Hill to make
the president's case for legalizing millions of immigrants
and welcoming potentially millions of temporary workers.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez are scheduled to
appear today before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the
starting point for the sweeping immigration bill that
passed the Senate last year before slamming against a wall
of Republican opposition in the House.
“It's opening day” for an overhaul of immigration
policy, said Frank Sharry, a leader of the coalition that
unites Hispanic rights groups, labor unions and church
organizations with an array of business interests
clamoring for wider access to low-wage workers.
The volatile politics of immigration policy took a turn
in November's midterm election as Democrats, historically
aligned with groups who seek to expand immigration, took
control of both houses of Congress.
Many Democratic candidates won after taunting the
“do-nothing Republican Congress” for its failure to manage
immigration and its passage of legislation to build a
border fence without funding it.
“That became a laugh line to show how ridiculous
Republicans were,” said Sharry, executive director of the
National Immigration Forum.
The leader of a Washington think tank that argues for
restrictions on immigration said that if House Speaker
Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, wants to preserve the
Democratic majority, she will need to move cautiously on
immigration. While a sweeping legalization measure would
appeal to much of the party's base, it could endanger the
seats of newly elected Democrats, said Mark Krikorian,
executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
Krikorian prefers to call legalization “amnesty,” a
term shunned by immigrant advocates who speak of “earned
“A big amnesty would be a big problem for the Democrats
who won in swing districts,” Krikorian said. “In the next
election, challengers would be able to run against the
'left-wing Nancy Pelosi amnesty.' ”
Many of those swing districts are in areas of the
country where there is widespread alarm at the nation's
rapid growth of illegal immigrants – estimated at 12
million and increasing at 500,000 a year.
Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House
Democratic Caucus, has said he expects the Bush
administration to persuade at least 85 Republicans to vote
for the legalization measure.
“They're going after Republicans because they know
they're going to have to give some of their own members a
bye when this comes up for a vote,” said Rep. Tom
Tancredo, R-Colo., who is weighing a 2008 presidential bid
to showcase his hard-line stance against illegal
Tancredo said the Bush administration is trumpeting its
ramped-up enforcement measures at the border and at job
sites to win the votes of reluctant members.
“They want to tell Congress, 'We've done our job, now
you do yours with a guest-worker program,' ” Tancredo
said. “My message is that as soon as you give them a
guest-worker program, that will be the end of
Partisans are waiting for President Bush to state his
position on one of the most controversial issues before
Congress: Should workers who come to the United States on
future guest-worker visas be put on a path to citizenship
or required to return home?
“He has been deliberately ambiguous on that one,” said
Sharry, pointing to Bush's previous calls for Congress to
“match willing workers with willing employers” without
stating the terms of such an arrangement.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel this week said that
such a program “must be truly temporary, so participation
should be for a limited period of time and guest workers
would have to return home” after a period set by Congress.
Tamar Jacoby, an immigration advocate and scholar at
the free-market, pro-business Manhattan Institute think
tank, said Congress must move on immigration legislation
before the fall, when the 2008 presidential campaign will
make both parties reluctant to act on such a controversial
“I would say that it's a universal belief that if it
doesn't happen by August, we're cooked,” Jacoby said.
If a wide-ranging measure fails, immigrant advocates
might then look to less ambitious reforms, such as the
Agjobs bill that would provide a path to citizenship for
hundreds of thousands of farmworkers and their families,
or the Dream Act, to provide a path to citizenship for
people who came illegally to the United States at an early
age, many of them brought by their parents.