- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

Now that Senate Democrats have obstructed passage of an immigration reform bill, Republicans have an opportunity to reorient this debate in a way that unifies the GOP or, at the very least, make sure it does not fracture it.

While virtually all Republicans agree on the need for tougher border security measures, greater enforcement of existing laws, and greater assimilation, House and Senate Republicans essentially fall into one of three legislative camps: 1. Border security only. 2. Border security first, with broader immigration reforms to come later. 3. Comprehensive legislation that contains both border security and broader reforms now.

Each of the three approaches would have a much different long-term political impact. The differing assessments of what their impacts would be are more rooted in art than science, but all are legitimate and well meaning policy options and should be recognized as such.

In an April 1 Wall Street Journal op-ed, I made the case that a comprehensive immigration reform bill would help assure our Republican majority for future generations, and that there is great risk to our majority if the GOP is perceived as anti-immigrant in the course of this debate.

The Washington Times ran a story last week in which it was suggested that this constituted “purveying the notion that half the House Republican conference, and by implication their constituents, must be xenophobic racists.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

I described calls for building a fence or a “bigger wall” as “populist” because Webster’s defines a populist as “a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people” and “a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people.” Indeed, I have described myself as populist on issues like tax reform, and have at times noted President Bush’s populist streak.

But Rep. Steve King of Iowa raised a legitimate point in the article that I could have been more clear in delineating the difference between being anti-illegal immigration and being anti-immigration. I agree with him, and told him so in a friendly call Friday afternoon. (I had an equally friendly call with Rep. Patrick McHenry, also quoted in Friday’s article.) Those of us who support comprehensive reform should help make this point clear to voters.

At the same time, those who support comprehensive reform are not abandoning the rule of law, unconcerned about the negative effects of illegal immigration, nor selling out to corporate interests, and those in favor of a more narrow approach can help make that clear to voters.

Managing our internal debate is necessary because Democrats have no positive policy to offer, and are intent simply on running against Republicans. We should resolve our intra-party differences soon so we can remind voters which one of the two major parties is focused on policy approaches that solve problems and which one is focused on political attacks that do nothing to improve the quality of life for working Americans, whether they are descended from the Mayflower or became new citizens last week.

I believe one policy step that may help is dropping from legislation any provision that allows illegal immigrants to become citizens.ManyAmericans understandably feel that people who are here by virtue of having broken our laws should not be rewarded with one of the greatest privileges in the world-U.S. citizenship-and it is this provision that most gives rise to the perception of amnesty.

Even if those here illegally must “go to the end of the line” before applying for citizenship, the fact is they will be in front of someone somewhere who has been abiding by our laws before seeking to become an American, with millions more behind that person.

But even without allowing the 10-12 million illegal immigrants to attain citizenship, we can still allow them to attain a legal status. This would meet our country’s economic needs and enhance homeland security without seeming to undermine the rule of law. To qualify for legal status and participation in a guest worker or temporary worker program, those currently here illegally would have to take the same steps now being proposed for a path to citizenship-register, hold a job, pay taxes, learn English and live crime-free.

Opponents of this approach say it would create a second class citizenry, but this ignores the fact that such a policy would be an improvement for illegal immigrants as well as our government. Allowing people who often work in temporary or seasonal jobs to return to their homeland without fear of not being able to return to the US later would result in fewer migrant workers staying longer than their jobs call for.

A legal temporary worker program would also help enable the Department of Homeland Security to more easily screen out potential drug dealers and terrorists while screening in people who take jobs that are often called “menial” but are critical to our economy.

By denying citizenship to illegal immigrants but giving them temporary legal status as guest workers, Republicans who have been divided over the issue could demonstrate their unity and their ability to lead.

Edward Gillespie is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee (2003-04). His firm represents clients who support a temporary worker program.

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