As home to thousands of Mormons who have spent time on religious missions, Utah looks more kindly on immigrants than does most of the U.S. It's one of only four states that offer illegal aliens both drivers' licenses and in-state tuition at public colleges. But Phyllis Sears, a retired engineer and Republican Party official, aims to haul in the welcome mat. As co-chair of a newly formed local Citizens Council on Illegal Immigration, Sears wants Utah's construction companies, hotels, and restaurants to publicly pledge not to hire illegals so locals can support all-American outfits and avoid those that won't sign. "Some businesses are profiting from hiring illegals, while citizens have to pay higher taxes for schools and government services," says Sears.
GOP activists such as Sears spell trouble for George W. Bush. As the President woos Hispanic voters with Cabinet appointments, political appeals, and immigrant-friendly policies, a rebellion is bubbling up through his party's ranks. The reason: The influx of illegals is hitting such solidly red states as Arizona and Utah particularly hard. "The problem seems to get more attention during times of fiscal distress for the states," says Jeffrey S. Passel, who studies immigration at the Urban Institute in Washington.
Look for the clash to intensify in late January. Although the issue got put on the back burner in the wake of September 11, the President plans to push once more for partial amnesty and a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants. But that call will run smack into rank-and-file Republican pressure to crack down on illegals. Hard-liners intend to introduce a bill early in the new Congress making it more difficult for immigrants to sneak in, claim asylum, and obtain documents to work in the underground economy.
To get the intelligence overhaul bill passed in December, the White House agreed not to try to block debate on the tighter controls when Congress reconvenes in January. But White House political guru Karl Rove says Bush is more determined than ever to see a guest-worker program enacted. Under the plan, illegals could apply for a three-year, renewable green card as long as they can show that they've ponied up payroll taxes and stayed out of trouble with the law. The Census Bureau estimates that there are 10 million illegals in the U.S.; of that number, perhaps 40% will be eligible for green cards.
The intraparty crossfire has Corporate America worried. The agriculture, hotel, and restaurant industries rely on low-wage immigrants -- many of them illegals who evade hiring controls. "There are probably 6 million or more [undocumented workers] who are raising children and paying taxes and are the backbone of some industries," says Sandra Boyd, a vice-president at the National Association of Manufacturers. "It's ridiculous to think we would deport them all."
Conservative Republicans say they're responding to public anger over the growing burden illegals are putting on public services, including health care . "The political climate is shifting on this," says Roy Beck, head of NumbersUSA, which seeks immigration curbs. The latest evidence: Arizona's Proposition 200, which prohibits illegal aliens from getting government benefits and requires state employees to report them to law enforcement or face jail time.
A plan modeled on the Bush initiative will be introduced in January by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). The bill would make illegal workers' quest for legitimacy even easier by encouraging them to return home and apply for guest-worker status. McCain's aides say his bill will also provide illegals a path to citizenship -- something Bush omitted.
When the two conflicting GOP bills arrive in Congress, "it will be like a perfect storm," says Representative Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who favors stricter enforcement of employer sanctions for hiring illegal aliens. So far, neither side can figure out how to stop it.
By Paul Magnusson in Washington