Immigration: Is Bush Fenced In?

As business groups and conservatives square off over immigration reform, the Bush Administration will find itself caught in the middle

By Paul Magnusson

In the nearly two years since he first pitched the idea of reforming immigration laws, President George W. Bush's more tolerant approach toward illegal immigrants has fallen flat with the party's conservative faithful while warming the hearts and opening the wallets of the party's business allies. Now the White House is preparing to regroup under a tougher banner.

In an afternoon speech at the White House signing ceremony for the Dept. of Homeland Security appropriations bill on Oct. 18, President Bush is expected to praise the U.S. Border Patrol for its capture of 1.1 million aliens along the border with Mexico over the past 12 months. He will also propose more border agents, aircraft, and dollars for the effort, aides say.


  Also on Oct. 18, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao plan some tough-talking testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on plans to stem further illegal immigration (For a look at the border situation, see BW Online, 10/10/05, "Whipsawed on the Border").

The ultimate goal: by recasting the Administration's moribund amnesty proposal of January, 2004, as a drive to reassert control over the southern border, the Administration might still be able to satisfy demands from the party's business wing for a continued supply of immigrant labor.

Amnesty opponents, on the other hand, still insist the change in the Administration approach must be more than than cosmetic. Yet, any proposal for even limited amnesty -- last tried unsuccessfully in 1986 -- "is dead on arrival," said Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) on Oct. 17.


  In contrast to the Bush plan, a bill from Senators Cornyn and John Kyl (R-Ariz.), would require the 11 million illegal aliens in the U.S. to eventually return home and get in the back of the line to apply for legal U.S. residency. By contrast, the Bush plan, largely embodied in a business-friendly bill co-sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), would allow illegals to remain in the U.S. while applying for "guest worker" status and eventual citizenship.

The McCain-Kennedy legislation will be feted on Oct. 18 at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington at an event co-sponsored by Wal-Mart (WMT ), Tyson Foods (TSN ), and the National Association of Home Builders, among other fans of the guest-worker idea.

The Manhattan Institute, a business think tank, released a survey on Oct. 17 of 800 Republican likely voters that shows them applauding a combination of strict enforcement and partial amnesty. Sort of. The survey by GOP pollster Ed Goeas, says the hard-line, enforcement-first approach favored by the Senate and House GOP leadership is a loser with Republican voters, 72% of whom say they favor a balanced carrot-and-stick approach.


  But the poll also has some disquieting numbers for business groups pushing to document the undocumented: Half of those surveyed want even legal immigration cut or halted altogether, versus only 8% that want it increased.

In addition, by 56% to 39%, GOP voters favor a plan that would tighten border enforcement, penalize businesses that hire illegals, and deny eventual citizenship to those in the U.S. illegally. By 49% to 39%, they also favor sending formerly illegal guest workers home after five years.

Nevertheless, says Manhattan Institute's Senior Fellow Tamar Jacoby, "GOP voters won't feel the problem is solved until we do take into account immigrants who already here" by granting them guest-worker status.


  With the Bush Administration distracted by continuing war in Iraq, bird flu, the aftermath of the Gulf hurricanes, and special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's investigations of White House leaks, it's highly unlikely any immigration legislation will be ready for President Bush's signature this year. But Cornyn predicted that the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin writing legislation this year, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has promised to push for a bill heavy on tougher enforcement before the New Year.

As for the House, it's even more solidly pro-enforcement than the Senate, most observers say. That will make any reversion to the original White House plan a hard sell, especially with 2006, a midterm election year, just around the corner.

Magnusson is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau

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