Pressure, Frustration Mount

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The immigrant demonstrators who flooded the streets of America's cities yesterday ratcheted up pressure on lawmakers to complete an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, while raising Republicans' frustration with President Bush for what they see as a muddled stand on the issue.

Bush, a former Texas governor, made immigration reform a signature issue after winning the presidency, advocating a guest-worker program that would offer illegal immigrants and foreign workers access to the U.S. labor market. But for months he has refused to get involved in the legislative details while Republicans in the House and Senate fought among themselves and took very different approaches.

The House, reflecting the anger of conservative districts contending with a flood of illegal immigrants, passed legislation in December that would build hundreds of miles of fence on the southern border and declare illegal immigrants felons, without offering them lawful employment, much less a route to citizenship. The Senate is trying to fashion a broader solution to address both border security and the fate of 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants already here.

But amid partisan finger-pointing, the Senate left town Friday for a two-week recess, having failed to pass a bipartisan immigration compromise that appeared to have the support of a clear majority of the Senate. The deal also appears to have overwhelming support among voters. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 63 percent of those surveyed backed letting immigrants who have lived in the country a certain number of years apply for legal status and eventually become citizens.

In contrast, only 14 percent favored a plan to let illegal immigrants work for a limited number of years before having to return to their home countries -- an alternative pushed by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). An additional 20 percent said illegal immigrants should be declared felons and offered no temporary work program, a stand that corresponds with the legislation approved by the House.

Many Republicans yesterday continued to blame Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), who has used parliamentary tactics to block votes on Republican amendments and is making demands the GOP sees as unreasonable. But they could not hide their frustration with the president, either.

When the delicate compromise was announced Thursday morning, Senate Republicans said, White House officials had told them that Bush would appear on television early that afternoon to strongly back the deal -- a move that advocates say could have shored up support and deflected opposition from conservatives. Right on time, Bush appeared in Charlotte, N.C., at 12:36 p.m., but his message was to exhort senators "to work hard."

"I'm pleased that Republicans and Democrats in the United States Senate are working together to get a comprehensive immigration bill," he said.

Advocates of the compromise were mystified that the man who first called for a guest-worker program would go no further.

"I think it's a fair statement to say the president has provided great leadership on the tenor of the debate, the tone of debate. Now it's time for him to provide more leadership on the substantive outcome," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

Some conservatives believe Bush betrayed them by launching the debate, then letting Democrats such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) and maverick Republicans such as Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) take control of it.

"This administration and the president's decision has had an enormous impact on the number of Hispanics who have committed crimes in this state," charged Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), whose Dallas district saw as many as half a million marchers on Sunday but whose office is fielding phone calls that overwhelmingly reject rights for illegal immigrants. "The president is ignoring the rule of law," Sessions said.

White House spokeswoman Erin Healey said she would not divulge internal discussions about what the president agreed to say last week, but she asserted that Bush has been "very engaged in this issue." She reiterated his support for a comprehensive bill that would tighten border patrols, toughen the enforcement of laws outlawing employment of undocumented workers, and expand a temporary guest-worker program for both illegal immigrants and legal foreign workers seeking access to the U.S. labor market.

Last night, citing Bush's Saturday radio address, in which he spoke of "a promising bipartisan compromise," Healey said Bush had expressed "strong support" for the Senate agreement.

With Bush on the sidelines, it may be the demonstrators who will drive the process forward.

As he watched tens of thousands of marchers in the streets of Phoenix, Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) noted that the demonstration kicked off with a rendition of the national anthem amid a sea of U.S. flags. Shadegg voted for the House bill, but he said yesterday's orderly, patriotic marches should help the cause of lawmakers from both parties who want to temper the bill and add an avenue to legal employment.

"Everybody is frankly astounded at the numbers of individuals who are willing to stand up and say they are here illegally," said Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), whose suburban district is not far from Atlanta, where 50,000 marched. "If nothing else can give a picture of why we need to act rapidly, it's this."

Beyond admiration for the marchers and the belief that the marches will spur action, lawmakers are divided over where that action should lead. But House Republicans seem to be softening their opposition to offering illegal immigrants lawful employment or even citizenship.

"Personally, my views won't change just because somebody takes to the street with a sign, no matter how many there are. I have my principles," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), who backed the House bill. He added, however, that "a guest-worker program is part of the solution, not part of the problem."

Even Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), the firebrand leader of the movement to crack down on illegal immigration, struck a defensive tone. "Today's rallies show how entrenched the illegal alien lobby has become over the last several years," he said. "The iron triangle of illegal employers, foreign governments and groups like La Raza puts tremendous pressure on our elected officials to violate the desires of law-abiding Americans and to grant amnesty."

Public opinion may be shifting as well. House Republican leaders rushed members back to Washington last year for a rare December session, convinced that a measure to get tough on illegal immigration would help the party battle back against the resurgent Democrats.

But in the new Post-ABC News poll, completed Sunday, 50 percent of respondents said they trusted the Democrats to better handle the immigration issue, while 38 percent trusted Republicans. A third of Americans approved of the president's handling of the immigration issue, while 61 percent disapproved. Only his handling of gas prices showed lower approval ratings.

Three-quarters of those responding said the United States is not doing enough to secure its borders, but they appeared to have rejected the argument that immigrants are an economic threat. About 68 percent said illegal immigrants are filling jobs Americans do not want, compared with 29 percent who believe they are taking jobs from Americans.

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