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Border clash

National | IMMIGRATION: What President Bush calls a "basic fact" of economics-our need for immigrants -is running up against a basic fact of politics: A broad coalition of liberals and conservatives doesn't want them here

Issue: "Considering the heavens," Jan. 24, 2004

TOO BAD VICENTE FOX CAN'T vote in U.S. elections. The Mexican president endorsed a Bush administration plan for immigration reform on Jan. 12, bolstering White House attempts to woo Hispanic voters back home. But if the plan played well in Mexico City, it found a chilly reception from Montgomery to Minneapolis, with an odd alliance of liberals and conservatives lining up in opposition.

Mr. Bush says his plan addresses a "basic fact of life and economics": Many Americans simply won't take menial, backbreaking, or low-paying jobs. Instead, those jobs are filled by at least 7 million illegal immigrants who aren't covered by the unemployment or welfare benefits that allow Americans to be picky about their paychecks.

The White House wants to grant renewable, three-year work permits to illegal immigrants presently in this country, allowing them to do legitimately the jobs they're already doing anyway. To protect against abuse, employers would have to prove they can't fill their payrolls with American workers; only then could they hire temporary workers from abroad.

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That's precious little comfort to labor groups, which claim the Bush plan will cost American jobs and depress wages. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney complained that immigration reform "will do nothing to strengthen protections for wages, benefits, and other rights of immigrant and domestic workers ... and deepens the potential for abuse and exploitation of these workers, while undermining wages and labor protections for all workers."

Mr. Bush certainly never expected his proposal to win union accolades, but its reception among some conservative groups may be cause for concern at the White House. It wasn't only far-right groups that expressed concern. (Ron Hay of the nativist America First Party said Mr. Bush was rewarding "foreign invaders" and "millions of criminals who should have already been rounded up and expelled from the country.") More mainstream conservatives have been just as vocal-though slightly less rabid-in their criticism. From Bill O'Reilly to the National Review to the Free Congress Foundation, conservatives have accused the president of selling out law-and-order principles in favor of political pragmatism.

There's little doubt that winning immigrant votes is good politics. Hispanics now constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population, having recently surpassed African-Americans as the country's largest minority group. Mr. Bush knows that the GOP can ill afford to turn the Hispanic population into another reliably Democratic voting bloc, and he has consistently reached out to them since his days as governor of Texas.

But supporters of the president insist his proposal is good policy, not just good politics. "Our immigration system is broken and the government must act in a comprehensive way to fix it," said Randel Johnson, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We need a system of 'earned targeted adjustment' for undocumented workers that fill vital roles in our economy, which would enable them to achieve legal status."

And Linda Chavez, a high-profile Hispanic conservative, argued in her nationally syndicated column that Mr. Bush was right in trying to "figure out how to get those illegal aliens already employed at these jobs to come in from the shadows and become part of the legal system. They should pay a penalty for having broken the law in the first place by sneaking into the country or overstaying their visas, but it is better for all of us if they earn their way toward legal status than remain in the illegal netherworld where they now hide."

No one will likely escape that netherworld any time soon. In an election year, any proposal that bitterly divides the GOP's conservative base is certain to have a tough time getting through Congress. "It's unlikely it will ever see the light of day," Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.) announced almost immediately, while a more equivocal Tom DeLay would say only that he had "heartfelt reservations" because the program "seems to reward illegal behavior."

If the president is serious about reforming the immigration system, he'll have to tighten the screws on the congressional leadership within his own party-a politically risky move that might attract a few new Hispanic votes while alienating a far greater number of traditional GOP supporters.

A crucial test will come on Jan. 20, when the president delivers his State of the Union address. If he uses the speech to impose a congressional deadline for immigration reform, the measure could be put to a vote before the Nov. 2 elections. Without such presidential pressure, the program is unlikely to go anywhere-just like the millions of illegal immigrants working in the shadows.

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