Immigration Plan Gets a Boost

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2006

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff will tour the Texas-Mexico border this morning with the conservative authors of a congressional immigration compromise, in what will be the clearest sign yet that the Bush administration is prepared to make major concessions to reach an immigration deal this year.

Chertoff's appearance with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) is "in no way meant to signal an endorsement" of their compromise, Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said. But it was seen by supporters and opponents yesterday as a boost for the plan and a significant White House concession to conservatives.

Under the compromise, most of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants would be allowed a chance to work in the country legally -- and possibly earn citizenship. But no guest-worker program would be made operational until stringent border-security measures are implemented, and illegal immigrants would have to report to privately run "Ellis Island" centers in Mexico to apply for legal work permits.

President Bush has maintained that a crackdown on the border could work only if new avenues toward legal work and citizenship were opened concurrently.

"The White House thinks we have a very interesting idea, and the president was very adamant about wanting to encourage my efforts," Pence said yesterday, after touring the border near San Diego. "Going to the border with Secretary Chertoff will help emphasize our seriousness about putting border security first."

With 15 scheduled legislative days left before Congress adjourns for the fall campaign, it is unclear whether any compromise stands a chance of passage. House leaders have spent the month staging "field hearings" on immigration. The hearings have raised sharp questions about guest-worker programs and have helped gird opposition to a Senate-passed bill, which includes such a program. Border security has moved to the forefront of Republican campaigns, from the frontier districts of Arizona to Upstate New York.

The Pence-Hutchison compromise has taken heat from conservatives, who say it would be exploited to allow a flood of illegal workers into the country and would still amount to amnesty for undocumented workers. And Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a co-author of the Senate bill, said the plan's 17-year wait for full legalization and citizenship "fails the basic test of fairness."

But administration officials have ramped up efforts to win over conservatives as they push for an immigration deal this year. The Department of Homeland Security all but declared victory yesterday in its new policy of ending the "catch and release" program for illegal immigrants from nations other than Mexico. For years, such non-Mexican immigrants were released upon apprehension and told to report for deportation hearings. Few did.

The DHS said that in the second week of August, the Border Patrol apprehended 1,055 non-Mexican illegal immigrants and released seven of them. At this time last year, 34 percent of such migrants were detained. About 4,000 beds have been added to detention facilities this year. And with the support of newly deployed National Guardsmen, the authorities have caught 6,200 illegal immigrants since June 15. Seizures have included 130 vehicles, 31,000 pounds of marijuana, 1,500 pounds of cocaine and $11,000 worth of currency.

"There is a real deterrent effect to this policy," Chertoff told reporters in Washington, pointing to a 20,000 drop in the number of illegal immigrants caught crossing the southwest border between this summer and the same period last year. "Although we're not ready to declare victory -- we've got a lot more work to do -- it is encouraging."

By convincing conservatives that the government is serious about a border clampdown, administration officials hope to win some flexibility to negotiate a final legislative package that would include a guest-worker program. But the anti-illegal immigration firebrands who have driven the debate on the GOP side have shown no sign of budging.

Jim Gilchrist, a founder of the Minuteman Project, a citizens' border patrol, greeted news of Chertoff's appearance with Pence and Hutchison with a preemptive salvo. He called it "a staged public relations ploy by the White House to give the voting public the illusion that the administration is going to do something about border security."

The bipartisan coalition that passed the Senate's more lenient bill has also held together. The Pence-Hutchison plan "is just another distraction to try to kill the Senate-passed bill," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

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