President Bush's proposal for a guest worker program to help stem the tide of illegal immigration actually prompted a surge of illegal border-crossings that the administration then sought to cover up, a watchdog group charged today, citing a 2004 survey by the U.S. Border Patrol.
Judicial Watch, a Washington-based public interest group, said the survey, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, showed that 61 percent of a sample of detainees who had been caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexican border in the wake of Bush's proposal said they had been informed by the Mexican government or the media that the Bush administration was offering amnesty to illegal immigrants. Nearly 45 percent said the purported amnesty influenced their decision to enter the United States illegally, Judicial Watch said.
"The results indicated that President Bush's proposal had actually lured greater numbers of illegal immigrants to violate the law," the group said in a 16-page report on the Border Patrol survey. It said the Bush administration aborted the survey on Jan. 27, 2004, within a few weeks after it began, because it was producing "politically inconvenient and/or potentially embarrassing data." The U.S. government never issued a report based on the survey.
"The White House directed Homeland Security public affairs officers to deliberately withhold information from the public and the media about the Border Patrol survey and a related spike in illegal immigration," Judicial Watch said, citing documents it obtained under the FOIA.
The White House referred questions about the report to the Department of Homeland Security, which said the survey was inconclusive and taken out of context.
Kristi Clemens, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a division of Homeland Security, said the survey was initiated "internally" by the Border Patrol and was stopped when it was "compromised" by a leak to the news media.
"As part of normal operating procedure for law enforcement, it's routine for Customs and Border Patrol agents to question illegal aliens to confirm identify, verify potential security risks and . . . obtain operational intelligence to pick up on any potential trends," she said. She said the survey was "part of routine operational intelligence information gathering," but that the findings were incomplete and could not be the basis for a conclusion that President Bush's guest worker proposal was encouraging a spike in illegal immigration.
"I don't know how they [Judicial Watch] could draw that based on inconclusive findings," Clemens said.
In a Capitol Hill press conference to announce the report, Judicial Watch President Thomas Fitton charged that the administration was engaged in a coverup.
"Unfortunately, at a time when the United States faces an illegal immigration crisis and a war on terrorism, Bush administration officials directed Border Patrol agents to mislead the American people," Fitton said.
Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), an outspoken critic of Bush's immigration proposal, said, "The timing of the survey's start and early dismissal, and the DHS gag order and stonewalling of Judicial Watch's request, suggest that the administration is playing politics with border security data. I hope that this is not the case."
Judicial Watch describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that serves as an ethical and legal watchdog, promotes government accountability and investigates and prosecutes government corruption. The group said the administration has produced only a portion of the documents it requested under FOIA and that it is pursuing a lawsuit in federal court in Washington to force the release of other materials related to the survey.
Among the documents the group has been denied are the orders to start conducting the survey and to halt it, said Christopher J. Farrell, director of investigations and research at Judicial Watch. He said, however, that he had no doubt the survey was done at the behest of the White House, given that it was geared to Bush's Jan. 7, 2004, proposal of a "temporary guest worker" program.
In announcing the proposal, Bush said in a White House speech that Congress should include the program in new legislation that would "serve the economic needs of our country" by allowing employers to hire guest workers for jobs "that American citizens are not willing to take." The proposal promptly ran into opposition in Congress, where many Republicans saw it as a de facto amnesty that would reward many of the 10 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
Among the documents it obtained, Judicial Watch said, was a U.S. Customs and Border Protection paper labeled "internal use only" and entitled "White House Approved Talking Points" on the temporary worker program. "Do not talk about amnesty, increase in apprehensions, or give comparisons of past immigration reform proposals," the paper ordered public affairs officers. "Do not provide statistics on apprehension spikes or past amnesty data."
Farrell said the Department of Homeland Security so far has produced only about half the 1,711 questionnaires that were filled out in the survey. While the survey was poorly designed and of little use for scientific or complex statistical analysis, Farrell said, the raw numbers provided some "residual value."
According to Judicial Watch's analysis of the questionnaires, 88 percent of those in the sample were from Mexico, 5 percent from El Salvador, 4 percent from Honduras and 3 percent from Guatemala. More than four in 10 (43 percent) said they planned to stay in the United States for more than a year, and a fifth said they planned to stay "forever."
Slightly more than 61 percent said they had heard reports of a U.S. government amnesty, and 44.6 percent said that "amnesty rumors" influenced their decision to cross the border illegally. "Yes, I am coming for the Bush amnesty program," one illegal crosser told a Border Patrol interviewer in one of the questionnaires, Judicial Watch reported.
Asked if they would apply for amnesty, more than 80 percent said yes, the survey showed. "Yes, I am not stupid," one respondent replied. Two-thirds said they planned to petition for other family members to join them.