January 9, 2004

Border Politics of the Bush Immigration Policy

WASHINGTON, January 8, 2004 — President Bush’s sweeping proposal on Wednesday to give legal status to millions of illegal workers was a political document as well as an immigration policy and sought to re-establish his credentials as a compassionate conservative at the starting gate of an election year.

White House political advisers have long talked of the critical importance of Hispanics to Mr. Bush’s re-election. But political analysts said that his latest proposal was also designed to appeal to a much larger political prize, suburban swing voters, who might see the plan as evidence of a gentler Republican Party.

“For a party that’s trying to look more inclusive and welcoming, the proposal has broader thematics that show an openness to America’s new immigrants,” said Bill McInturff, a leading Republican pollster.

President George W. Bush. File Photo.

Mr. Bush’s speech carefully hit the emotional notes about opening the United States’ borders at a time when the administration has spent more energy securing them. “Many of you here today are Americans by choice, and you have followed in the paths of millions,” the president told the crowd. Every generation of immigrants, he added, “has reaffirmed the wisdom of remaining open to the talents and dreams of the world.”

Behind the poetic language, analysts said, lay a prosaic White House calculation: That it was more important to reach toward the political middle than to worry about placating Mr. Bush’s conservative base. Many conservative Republicans called Mr. Bush’s plan nothing more than amnesty for lawbreakers but moderate Republicans said the White House had enough political capital with the conservatives to make it worth risking their ire.

Certainly Mr. Bush’s speech announcing the proposal, in the East Room of the White House, came with the kind of political noise not normally heard in the formal splendor of the executive mansion’s state floor.

Hispanic leaders invited by the White House jammed the room, cheering and chanting. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Jamaica, had a front-row seat.

The real political risk to the White House, moderate Republicans said, was whether the proposals would be as welcomed by Hispanics as Mr. Bush and his political advisers expected. Many Hispanic leaders quickly heaped criticism on an immigration plan that they said did not go far enough, and asserted that the White House was cynically chasing their votes with an empty plan that would do them no good in the end.

“The notion that there is a green card at the end of this process is an illusion, and that’s the crux of the matter,” said Cecilia Muñoz, a vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy organization. “The headlines today suggest that he’s providing legal status. But the bottom line is when people learn the details of this proposal and what it does and doesn’t do, it’s likely to seem less appealing.”

The White House left many details of the proposal vague, including a critical one at the heart of the plan. Under Mr. Bush’s proposal, an illegal worker with a job in the United States could apply to be a three-year guest worker, a status that would provide full employee benefits, the ability to move freely in and out of the United States and the right to apply for a green card. In his speech, Mr. Bush said that an immigrant could renew participation in the guest worker program — but he did not say for how long, leaving it up for Congress to decide.

The tactic is one Mr. Bush has used before, most recently on the Medicare bill, which allows him, Democrats say, to take credit for proposing reforms while leaving Congress to work out the details.

For now, analysts of Hispanic voting trends said it was too early to tell how much the proposal would help Mr. Bush. His advisers have said the president needs 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to win. Mr. Bush won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000, a significant showing for a Republican. For the past three years, the White House has been aggressively trying to encroach on a traditionally Democratic and rapidly growing voting group.

“The plan is still too vague to say how it will fare among Latino organizations and the Latino community,” said John A. Garcia, a political professor at the University of Arizona and the author of the book “Latino Politics in America.” But at the least, Mr. Garcia said that it “puts the spotlight back on Bush and the Latinos” and gets Latinos re-engaged in a national conversation with the president and his policies.

But pollsters and political strategists said that Mr. Bush did not have to persuade every Hispanic voter of the value of his plan, and that just improving his standing on the margins could make a difference in the 2004 election.

Andrew Kohut, the director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, noted that Republicans have been gaining significant ground with Hispanic voters in the last decade, and that Mr. Bush’s immigration proposals could exploit those gains. Pew surveys in Florida in the late 1990’s, Mr. Kohut said, showed that 36 percent of Hispanic voters were Democrats while 24 percent were Republicans. But surveys in more recent years showed that 30 percent of Hispanic voters were Democrats while 32 percent were Republicans.

“So think about the advantage that could be for Bush in a close election, and it gives you some indication of the potential for this proposal to help him politically,” Mr. Kohut said.

John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster and a partner in Opiniones Latinas, a firm in Alexandria, Va., that conducts national surveys among Spanish-speaking adults, said that many legal Hispanics were interested in overhauling immigration laws for national security reasons, and also to make it easier for them to travel to and from the United States.

“Their family and friends, even in the legal immigration system, are running into increased barriers,” Mr. McLaughlin said.

If President George W. Bush expects to win a bloc of immigrant support for his new immigration overhaul proposal, some surprises may await him inside the pizza parlor, the beauty shop and Chinese-Spanish restaurant on Fifth Avenue in the polyglot Sunset Park section of Brooklyn.

“It sounds good, and I say sounds good because it doesn’t mean it’s good,” said Elmer Rodriguez, a El Salvadoran baking slices at Gina’s Pizzeria, where the decor suggested Sicily, but the kitchen help was from Latin America. “For someone coming here for the first time and wants to try it out, O.K., but for someone who is already here and wants a future here, it doesn’t make sense.”

Like Mr. Rodriguez, many immigrants were torn between possible benefits and dangers of the three-year temporary work permit proposed by the president. Many wondered whether applicants might open themselves to deportation when the three years expired.

In Brooklyn, Mr. Rodriguez pointed out other potholes that could trip up the unwary. Mr. Rodriguez said he already has a temporary work permit, one extended year-to-year to victims of Hurricane Mitch, which devastated parts of Central America in 1998. But for many here illegally, he insisted, it would not be worthwhile to apply only to risk deportation.

“It’s also illogical,” he said, “because if they send them back, they’re going to come back here again.”

From the perspective of Luis Guaman, an Ecuadoran who has been working illegally in Brooklyn kitchens for 20 years, the plan held a strong lure: the possibility of visiting his homeland again for the first time.

But he was skeptical of President Bush’s real intentions, echoing many who saw the proposal as an election ploy.

“He offers a lot of things but he doesn’t do anything,” Mr. Guaman said of the president. “After he wins, forget it. They only give permanent status to top dogs, they don’t give it to dishwashers.”

Still, Katherine Culliton, a legislative staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund said she was pleased that Mr. Bush acknowledged that the current system was broken. But, she said: “A guest worker bill isn’t enough. It doesn’t provide equal worker rights, family unity or a path to citizenship. Unless this plan is changed, it will produce a permanent underclass.”

Leaders of the United Farm Workers, the union founded by Cesar Chavez, also expressed misgivings.

“It’s not amnesty, that’s for sure,” said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the union. “I don’t really feel, based on what I’ve heard and read, that President Bush has focused on the real issues confronting us and immigrants in the United States. It doesn’t provide a pathway for legalization for those here now, nor for guest workers to be brought in.”

Some saw flaws in the proposal on a more practical level. The plan’s reporting requirement would force workers and employers to register each new worker. But these workers are more transient than the rest of the labor force, creating a huge paperwork burden for employers and the government, said Josh Bernstein, director of federal policy for the National Immigrant Law Center, who went on to praise the president’s tone in addressing the issue.

“He said people shouldn’t have to break the law in order to work in jobs that are available to them,” Mr. Bernstein said. “He said we shouldn’t turn our backs on people working in our economy and taking the hardest jobs. The principles are not bad. It’s more the details that are flawed.”

In Tucson, Manuel Castillo Flores, 57, and Luciano Salazar Gonzalez, 30, who work illegally as landscapers, said they could live with the proposal despite the shortcomings.

Mr. Gonzalez, who lives here with his wife, who is pregnant, and his young son, said if the proposal were to become law, he would not hesitate to pay whatever fee and sign up. “If it’s true, I’m going to sign up no matter what. What is there to lose? If it’s a trap and they send me back after three years — hey, Mexico is only an hour and a half away. I can come right back.”

  Reprinted from Hispanic News @ www.hispanic.bz

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