Part 14: New politics of immigration : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Part 14: New politics of immigration Tuesday, 4 September 2001 10:53 (ET)

Part 14: New politics of immigration By MARK BENJAMIN, UPI Congressional Bureau Chief

(Part 14 of UPI's 14-part series on U.S. immigration)

WASHINGTON (UPI) -- Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm represents a state that shares a porous, 1,254-mile border with Mexico, and he doesn't approve of illegal immigration.

But when Congress comes back to Washington this fall, Gramm told United Press International, he plans to draft legislation to allow millions of immigrant workers -- many of who are currently undocumented -- to work in the United States for nine months each year in seasonal occupations indefinitely, and give full-time immigrant workers up to three years before they return home.

In part, the plan is supposed to help businesses grappling with labor shortages, particularly in the farming and service industries. But if necessary, that legislation is designed to counter and derail an immigration plan that is at least under consideration by President George W. Bush.

Gramm's "guest-worker" proposal, however, would ultimately force those workers to leave the United States when the work is done, regardless of how many years they paid taxes while toiling in the fields or cleaning hotel rooms.

And that strikes at the heart of a debate that is splintering the Republican Party as it struggles to court the burgeoning Hispanic vote, which on the heels of the 2000 Census, is considered by many GOP strategists as a political imperative.

Gramm's bill comes as Bush is considering some of the biggest changes in immigration policy in 15 years. But for better or for worse, Republicans like Gramm might only let him go so far.

"I am in favor of a guest-worker program and I think that the people that are here illegally should be given a one-time opportunity to join that program," Gramm said, detailing his legislative plan for the first time. "But I think the people in a guest-worker program ought to be in a guest-worker program, not in an immigration program."

But in an interview with UPI, Jim Gilmore, Republican National Committee chairman and Virginia governor, said the White House was considering a guest-worker program that would lead to permanent legal status for some of those workers.

"It would be much better to have a process, built up over time, so that people who are in this country illegally can get legal, so they can find a way to get papers so that they fit into an appropriate system. That way we know where they are. We know what they are doing," Gilmore said. "And then it is possible over time that there would be a process by which people would become legal under immigration law, either current or reformed."

In the Senate, Texas's Gramm represents a powerful coalition of conservative Republicans who fear that legalizing immigrant workers only encourages more people to cross the border illegally.

"The message (is) like putting up a neon sign: 'Get to America any way you can and you will be able to stay,'" Gramm said.

Leaders of the Hispanic community in the United States have said they will accept the creation of a guest-worker program, but only if it leads to a plan to naturalize millions of those workers later.

"We believe that a guest worker ought to be, needs to be, and must be politically linked to a significant legalization program," National Council of La Raza President Raul Yzaguirre said. The council is a private non-partisan group set up to improve life opportunities for Hispanic Americans.

On Aug. 21, a coalition of those leaders met privately with White House officials to demand that any guest-worker program advocated by the White House must extend legal status to workers after three years of work. Hispanic leaders have not said exactly how many workers would ultimately receive permanent legal status under that plan, but have said that an acceptable number would have to be in the millions. At that meeting, the Hispanic leaders also made it clear that the program should not simply apply to immigrants from Mexico alone.

"We are concerned about any efforts to address this issue in a piecemeal or go-slow fashion," Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund Staff Attorney Aisha Qaasim said.

Sources close to the discussions have said policy makers are also struggling over the details of even just the guest worker portion of any plan. For example, immigration advocates have said temporary work permits must be "portable," to avoid tying workers to one employer and inviting possible abuse of that arrangement.

Hispanic leaders said they are convinced the White House is seriously considering their suggestions.

"The conversations indicate that the White House is fairly open to a number of ideas and has not made up their mind yet," Yzaguirre said.

Republican strategists argue that the latest census data compels the party to act to reform immigration rules, and hopefully, win some votes in the process.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 13.3 million legal and illegal immigrants settled in the United States in the 1990s alone -- with many moving to states with the most electoral votes, like New York, Illinois and Florida -- bringing the total immigrant population to more than 30 million. Around 18 million of those immigrants are not citizens.

Half of the immigrants in the United States come from Spanish-speaking countries and 9 million are from Mexico alone. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington research group that advocates "fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted," the number of immigrants living in the United States has more than tripled since 1970.

Observers said the GOP is at a crossroads, stranded between political necessity and traditional GOP policy against any tweaks to immigration policy that might "reward" illegal immigrants by handing them legal status. At the same time, the Hispanic leaders continue to argue that the Hispanic vote is up for grabs and those voters are paying attention to immigration policy.

"I think it is short sighted for either party to think that the Latino community is locked up by the other party or is monolithic or unchanging," Yzaguirre said. "I think this is an internal battle between the best instincts of President Bush and the worst instincts of some xenophobes and other less scrupulous positions within the party."

For his part, Bush has said only that he will not extend an immediate blanket amnesty to millions of immigrants.

"There will be no blanket amnesty for illegals," Bush said Aug. 23 at an elementary school in Crawford, Texas. "Now, there are ways for us to discuss, as I said, a worker program of some type that will legalize the hard work that's taking place now in America. And so long as there's somebody who wants to hire somebody and somebody willing to work, it seems like to me it's in our nation's interest to make sure the two go together."

After the president, the RNC chairman is one of the top GOP fundraisers and political strategists who is largely responsible for making sure a Republican moves into the White House and stays.

Gilmore said revisiting immigration policy might help the GOP change its reputation among Hispanics and other minority groups.

"What I think has happened in the past is that concern over immigration issues has manifested itself in a message of unwelcomeness," Gilmore said. "Legal Hispanics who are registered to vote and want to express themselves have expressed in the past a dislike for that kind of thing. I think the president is trying to make it clear that the Republican Party does not feel that way."

He also dismissed any portrayal of the effort as a "callous" attempt to court the Hispanic vote. "I do not intend to suggest to you, nor do I think the president is suggesting, that this is a callous compromise of good policy just to get the Hispanic vote," Gilmore said. "What I do believe we intend to do is address an issue that is of concern to Hispanic people in this country."

Gilmore has established an entire division at the RNC headquarters dedicated solely to reaching out to all kinds of minority voters. Republicans have also retooled their priorities and placed an emphasis on education policy and funneling money to religious charities through a "faith-based initiative" that strategists said poll particularly well with socially conservative and religious Hispanics.

Some Republicans also see Bush as a competitive candidate to chip away at the Democrats' hold on the Hispanic vote. According to CIS, Bush received 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2000 elections -- the best ever for a Republican presidential candidate with the exception of President Ronald Reagan. Bush also garnered nearly half of the Hispanic vote in the 1998 Texas gubernatorial race. That was the same year Republican Dan Lundgren was trounced among Hispanic voters in California by Democrat Gov. Gray Davis in the aftermath of Proposition 187, which denied non-emergency social services to illegal immigrants.

But political analysts and immigration specialists pointedly disagree on whether tweaking immigration policy will draw more Hispanics into the Republican Party, or simply legalize a new generation of Democrats.

According to a CIS study released in August, Democrats hold a 20 percentage-point advantage in party identification over the GOP once the Cuban population is excluded. That study also appeared to show that Latinos vote more Democratic as their education levels increase, and that it is the core Republican policies that drive away the Latino vote, but not so much Republican policy on immigration.

"I find the political base for amnesty to be among labor unions and political activists who have an agenda other than the well-being of the people we are talking about," Gramm said in his interview. "I have never found bad policy to be good politics."

Democrats in Congress have said they "welcome" the signal from the White House that a spirited immigration debate is expected this fall. They have drafted a series of immigration principles that call for wide-scale legalization of immigrants already working and paying taxes in the United States.

In the House, Republicans like Reps. Thomas Gerard Tancredo from Colorado and Lamar Smith of Texas are set to defeat any legislation that would attach permanent legal status to a guest-worker program, no matter who advocates it. To illustrate the split in the GOP, however, Republicans like Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart from Florida are pushing for a plan to grant legal status to workers at the tail end of a guest-worker program. GOP supporters of that plan have coined the word "regularization" to describe it, and take great care to differentiate it from immediate "amnesty" for illegal aliens.

Off of Capitol Hill, other proponents of any plan to legalize illegal immigrants are already advocating aggressive steps to discourage illegal border crossings in the first place, like doling out difficult-to-fake identification cards or "internal passports" workers would need to get jobs.

Some immigration experts in that camp said the government should also establish and enforce tough penalties against employers that hire illegal immigrants.

"The sanction program that we have in the United States is basically a joke," George F. Borjas, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government said. "The only people who are affected by it are those people who hope to be in the [president's] cabinet one day, nobody else is really paying attention to that anymore."

Prospects for immigration reform are complicated further by demands from House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., that no immigration proposals move until Congress reforms the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Spurred by a backlog of some 4.5 million applications of various kinds, Republicans have vowed to split the INS into two branches to handle enforcement and benefits separately.

"INS reform must be the first legislative train down Pennsylvania Avenue," Sensenbrenner said. "Failure to act only will bottle up other immigration proposals."

But Hispanic leaders said the evidence compels the Republican Party to move forward and tackle the Latino vote with immigration in mind.

According to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, which supports a legalization program, the number of Latinos registered to vote has grown from 5.5 million in 1994 to 8 million in 2000. Election turnout rates for naturalized Latino citizens also exceed the turnout rate for native-born Latinos by 37 percent to 31 percent.

Hispanic leaders recognize the tendency for Hispanics to vote Democratic, but argue that Latinos also tend to be socially conservative, like Republicans, and many haven't made up their political minds yet simply because they are young.

According to NALEO's Washington Office Director Larry Gonzalez, 36 percent of the Hispanic community in the United States is under the age of 18.

"The important thing to understand is that right now the Latino community is developing its political conscience," Gonzalez said. "We are one of the youngest ethnic groups in the country."

But in the end, some Republicans have said that the complex politics of immigration make it a difficult win for the GOP.

"If there has ever been an issue that should be dealt with on the merits and not on the politics it would be immigration," Gramm said. "I don't know anybody who has been smart enough to figure the politics out."

-- Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 10, 2001

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