Immigration poses tricky political issue for administration

Deep divisions exist over what to do about illegal residents

August 14, 2005|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When senators working to overhaul the nation's immigration laws gathered in a Capitol Hill hearing room recently to get President Bush's take on the issue, they got terse, last-minute cancellations from the two Cabinet officials scheduled to testify.

That same afternoon, behind closed doors at the White House, Bush and senior aides including Karl Rove were hosts to a handful of the publicly jilted lawmakers in two separate, private sessions on immigration, complete with Power Point presentations.

The mixed signals coming from the Bush administration that late July day highlight the precarious balancing act Bush faces on immigration reform, a politically risky effort that sparks passionate divisions in both parties and one the president says he is determined to advance this fall.

There is broad consensus around the country that the immigration system is badly broken, according to public polls, and many lawmakers agree with Bush that Congress should address the issue while enhancing border security.

Surveys also show that many Americans would support the creation of a guest worker program, such as one Bush proposed in January 2004, that would allow immigrants to come to the United States - at least temporarily - to fill jobs that Americans won't take.

But there is deep disagreement about what to do with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already here. Allowing them to stay and earn the right to U.S. citizenship amounts to rewarding immigrants for breaking the law when they came here, say some Republicans, Democrats and conservative groups.

But rounding up illegal immigrants and deporting them is impractical and inhumane, and it would be a blow to an economy that has come to depend on them, say other lawmakers in both parties as well as business, labor and minority groups.

Public vs. private

In private, Bush, Rove and other senior White House aides are scrambling to forge an agreement that has a chance of becoming law, hoping in the process to boost Republicans' standing with minority voters. But in public, the president and his advisers have backed away from proposing a solution, fearing that weighing in with a specific plan on the emotionally charged issue could provoke a dangerous backlash for Bush and his party.

Republicans fear a debate that could cast their party as mean-spirited and anti-immigrant.

"This is really a contesting over the hearts and minds of our base," said Dick Armey, the former House Republican leader from Texas, who is part of a private-sector group working closely with the White House to quell the raw party divisions standing in the way of an immigration overhaul.

Shift in strategy

Bush, who had planned this summer to unveil details of the immigration changes he has advocated since winning office, has shifted strategies in favor of working behind the scenes, say lawmakers, aides and analysts with knowledge of the talks.

The change in tactics was evident last month, with the conspicuous absence of Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff at a Senate Judiciary hearing where they had been scheduled to testify.

The approach is a familiar one for Bush, who has excelled at proposing ambitious initiatives that face long odds, laying out general guidelines on how to achieve them, and then standing back, above the fray, while Congress engages in sometimes bloody battles to hammer them out. The strategy has allowed Bush to claim significant victories on such nettlesome issues as his signature tax cut and the addition of prescription drug benefits to Medicare.

Now, as Bush sets out to steer a middle course on the immigration issue, he is leaving it to Congress to fill in the politically sensitive blanks.

"Immigration reform is going to be an interesting subject when we get back to Washington, D.C." in August, Bush told a conference of conservative legislators in Grapevine, Texas, earlier this month. "I'm looking forward to the topic."

Fierce national debate

Bush's focus on immigration, which dates to his days as governor of Texas, has raised the issue's prominence, with recent developments around the country adding to an increasingly fierce national debate.

Passage in November of an Arizona voter initiative that blocked certain public services for illegal immigrants has stirred similar efforts in other states, even as it drew criticism from members of both parties.

A volunteer border patrol of activists calling themselves "Minutemen" attracted more public attention to the issue in April.

And a dispute this month among Virginia politicians over whether the state should fund a gathering site for day laborers in Herndon made it clear that the debate over illegal immigrants is no longer confined merely to border states.

Bush has reason to be circumspect about laying out an immigration plan.

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