Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's suggestion that 8 million to 12 million illegal aliens now in the United States be "legalized" drew harsh criticism yesterday from congressional and other opponents of such legalization.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, said Mr. Ridge should resign if he is unable or unwilling to enforce immigration laws enacted by Congress.
"Mr. Ridge ought to read the laws he is charged with trying to enforce," Mr. Tancredo said in a telephone interview. "We have laws on the books that call for him to find and deport these people, and if he is unwilling to do so, he should resign."
Mr. Tancredo said Mr. Ridge's comments, made to a forum Tuesday in Miami, would "open a floodgate" of immigrants "trying to sneak into the United States in order to be first in line for amnesty."
Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR), yesterday asked what security interests of the United States were being served "by encouraging people to break the law, by granting legal status to people whose identities cannot be confirmed and who already have shown an unwillingness to observe U.S. law?
"How can you support an amnesty program when the country's immigration laws, over which Mr. Ridge has jurisdiction, are in shambles?" Mr. Stein asked. "The law has to be respected before you grandfather in the very people who disrespected it."
The White House reacted cautiously to Mr. Ridge's remarks. "We should match willing workers with willing employers," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said, responding to inquiries. "The president believes America should be a welcoming country, a welcoming society. We're a nation of immigrants. Migration should be safe, orderly and humane."
Several days before the terrorist attacks of September 11, Mr. Bush had agreed to consider granting permanent residency, or green cards, to some Mexican illegal aliens, and that plan was suspended. Yesterday, Miss Buchan said the president's policy had not changed. "We were looking at it before 9/11," she said. "After 9/11, there were issues that obviously needed to be addressed, in terms of borders, with immediate attention." Other issues "continue to be under review."
At the "town hall" meeting in Miami on Tuesday, Mr. Ridge said the government "had to come to grips with the presence of 8 million to 12 million illegals" now in the country, to "afford them some kind of legal status some way, but also as a country decide what our immigration policy is and then enforce it.
"I'm not saying make them citizens, because they violated the law to get here. So you don't reward that type of conduct by turning over a citizenship certificate. You determine how you can legalize their presence, then, as a country, you make a decision that from this day forward, this is the process of entry, and if you violate that process of entry we have the resources to cope with it."
Mr. Ridge's spokesman, Brian Roehrkasse, said yesterday that the secretary was "acknowledging a practical problem" concerning illegal aliens, and that his comments -- made during a question-and-answer period -- were in response to a growing movement in Congress to change the way the nation deals with illegal immigrants.
The secretary has not decided on any specific plan and did not support any particular bill now pending in Congress to change the legal status of aliens illegally in the country, he said.
Of the several amnesty or guest-worker bills pending in Congress, the most prominent was introduced by three Arizona Republicans: Sen. John McCain and Reps. Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake. It would, after several years of work, grant permanent residence to foreign workers who entered the country legally as well as to illegal workers already in the country.
"Any meaningful immigration fix has to deal with those who wish to come to the U.S. to work as well as those who currently are here illegally," Mr. Flake said yesterday. "This is not to say we offer those who are here illegally instant citizenship. ... But those who are working here illegally need to be here under a legal framework."
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, has introduced another guest-worker bill calling for illegal aliens to receive legal status with the sponsorship of an employer. But his bill would require the aliens to return home after three years to apply for permanent residence, after which they would receive priority treatment.
Mr. Stein said the need for "cheap labor" in this country does not mean that immigration laws already approved by Congress should not be enforced.
In his Miami speech, Mr. Ridge -- without mentioning the Cornyn proposal -- said an amnesty program that requires illegal aliens to leave the country before applying for legal status was "not workable."
Bill Sammon contributed to this report.