Clinton Could Wind Up Looking Like The Heavy On Immigration

Determined to move right on social policy in the wake of the Republican rout, the Administration is rapidly earning a reputation as the Gang That Couldn't Pander Straight. Case in point: White House plans to get in sync with the GOP's anti-immigrant thrust by weighing new restrictions on legal aliens.

Politically, the idea seemed like a winner inside President Clinton's rapid-response White House. California voters had overwhelmingly backed a ballot measure denying social services to illegals. Clinton's approval ratings in the Golden State were in the tank. And Republicans were vowing to slash welfare costs by throwing legal immigrants off public assistance. What could win more points with angry nativists than a tough Clinton immigration policy?

But Clintonites hadn't counted on GOP leaders growing queasy over the immigrant-bashing coming from the party's border-state governors--now that the election is behind them. The bizarre result: National Republicans are softening their stance just as Clinton may knuckle under.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich signaled the shift on Jan. 9 when he said the GOP might ditch plans to deny legal immigrants welfare payments. Gingrich wasn't--as is his custom--just musing out loud. Other leading Republicans, among them Jack Kemp and New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, warn that the assault could alienate minorities. The GOP won 30% of the Hispanic vote on Nov. 8, and party pros want to expand that base.

Despite his broad powers, Gingrich doesn't speak for the entire GOP. Representative Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the House immigration subcommittee, sees a "crisis situation" in welfare costs: "Legal immigrants tend to take advantage of the generosity of the American taxpayer."

With such America First sentiment percolating through the electorate, the White House wants to appear tough. The results will be seen in a Clinton immigration-reform plan due in February. "Neither side wants to be outpostured on this," says Stephen Moore, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute.

The big news in the White House effort is that it may include curbs on legal immigration as well. That approach has powerful backers on Capitol Hill. Both Smith and Senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), head of the Senate immigration panel, favor such limits: Simpson introduced a bill in the last Congress to cut legal immigrants from 675,000 to 500,000 per year for five years. While Clinton hasn't yet signed off on a measure, options before him include eliminating slots for employees brought in by businesses and reducing quotas for countries with relatively few visa applicants.

BIG BROTHER. House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), both pro-immigration libertarians, will likely join Gingrich in pressuring Smith and Simpson to back off on legal entrants. GOP leaders also look askance at proposals to set up a national verification system to help employers sniff out illegals. While the Administration is likely to endorse measures that would create a monitoring system--such as upgrading immigration and Social Security databases--Gingrich & Co. may shy away from a proposal many right-wingers see as endorsing a Big Brother ID card.

Where does this leave the White House? Potentially, looking politically crass just as the GOP looks responsible. "The dumbest thing the White House could do," says immigration lobbyist Rick Swartz, "is let Gingrich and Armey win the hearts of the ethnic community by being more pro-immigrant than Clinton." But that's exactly what could happen in the strange world of Washington immigration policy.

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