President Bush's plan to liberalize the nation's immigration laws to allow millions of undocumented workers the opportunity for legal status appears to be on a collision course with newly aroused sentiment among House Republicans pushing for a crackdown on illegal immigration.
Bush describes his immigration proposal as one of the top goals of his second term, calling it a humane way to get a handle on the nation's mushrooming illegal immigration problem. Republican strategists, led by White House chief political adviser Karl Rove, also see the proposal as an important element in their plan to expand the party's base among the nation's fast-growing Hispanic population.
The key prong in Bush's plan is a temporary-worker program that would offer the nation's estimated 10 million illegal immigrants a chance to earn legal status that would allow them to stay in the country as long as six years. Once they register as temporary workers, they would be eligible to begin the long process of applying for citizenship or permanent residency.
"It's a compassionate way to treat people who come to our country. It recognizes the reality of the world in which we live," Bush said during a news conference last week. "There are some people -- there are some jobs in America that Americans won't do and others are willing to do."
But an increasingly vocal group of House Republicans is threatening to undercut Bush's vision, which the president has discussed with passion but has not formally advanced since taking office in 2001. Many House Republicans oppose any effort to grant legal status to undocumented workers, saying it would have the effect of rewarding law-breakers. Instead, they are seeking to ratchet up enforcement efforts against undocumented workers, an approach with proven voter appeal if unproven results when it comes to slowing illegal immigration.
When the new Congress commences this month, key House Republicans are promising to push legislation to complete a controversial fence along the Mexican border near San Diego, to make it tougher for immigrants to attain asylum and to prevent illegal immigrants from receiving driver's licenses. At the insistence of Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) -- and with the White House's approval -- Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has promised to attach those measures "to the first must-pass legislation" that moves in the House.
Last month, House Republicans wrested a pledge from Bush to cooperate in enacting tougher immigration provisions by blocking legislation to restructure the nation's intelligence community. The intelligence bill passed only after Bush promised to "work with" House Republicans to enact those measures.
Bush's concession meant that Congress will begin the year on an anti-immigration note, which promises to continue as many of those pushing for the tough enforcement measures also are likely to oppose the president's "guest worker" plan.
"I'm no longer the only person in the caucus bringing the issue of illegal immigration to the American people," said Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who heads the House's 71-member Immigration Reform Caucus, which has a section on its Web site listing crimes, health problems and other problems it says are caused by illegal immigrants. "Now others appear to be willing to go to the mat on it."
How the White House plans to reconcile its stated desire for a temporary-worker program with its pledge to toughen immigration laws is unclear, although some supporters of Bush's plan say the two goals are not incompatible. Backers of a guest-worker plan argue that there is no way to effectively crack down on undocumented workers, given the ineffectiveness of the nation's immigration laws. The new program, they said, would create incentives for people to enter the country legally.
Efforts to hold employers accountable for hiring illegal immigrants have been largely frustrated by a booming industry in forged documents. Attempts to stem the tide by building a fence and beefing up patrols along the southwestern border have only shifted much of the flow of illegal immigrants east from California, often to the rugged Arizona desert. Hundreds of would-be illegal immigrants have died attempting to make the perilous journey across the southwestern border, even as an estimated 1 million illegal immigrants make it into the country each year.
Many supporters say a temporary-worker program would enhance national security by identifying who is in the country; by boosting the economy with a continuing supply of highly motivated, low-skill workers; and by helping undocumented workers avoid exploitation by granting them the protections that come with legal status. The workers, meanwhile, would be free to return to their home countries, allowing them to stay connected with their families.
"The idea is to make the system respond to the fact that we have an integrated labor market that interacts with Mexico and Central America," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrants' rights group. "You are trying to transform it from a black market, chaotic, hard-to-control flow to a more orderly, regulated flow."
Still, tougher enforcement provisions are popular among voters, particularly in areas where residents feel overwhelmed by illegal immigrants. "If the White House and the Republican establishment think promoting amnesty is good politics, they are crazy," said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes a guest-worker program. "It has the real potential of turning off their base."