Top conservative leaders have written President Bush telling him to drop his insistence on a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens and instead support the 85 percent of congressional Republicans who want to tighten law enforcement first.
Signers include William J. Bennett, Robert H. Bork, Ward Connerly, David A. Keene, Phyllis Schlafly and a number of think-tank academics and pundits.
The immigration debate is the first major issue on which Mr. Bush finds himself opposing a majority of Republicans in Congress and depending on Democrats to deliver a victory. In their letter, the conservatives tell Mr. Bush to side with his fellow Republicans in Congress or risk repeating the 1986 immigration law that promised enforcement and amnesty but delivered only the amnesty.
“Border and interior enforcement must be funded, operational, implemented and proven successful and only then can we debate the status of current illegal immigrants or the need for new guest-worker programs,” 39 conservative leaders write in the letter, to be released today. A copy was obtained yesterday by The Washington Times. The letter was addressed as well to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.
Across the House and Senate, 85 percent of Republicans voted either for the House bill, which is an enforcement-only bill, or against the Senate bill, which dramatically increases immigration and offers a new right to citizenship for illegal aliens.
“That’s pretty overwhelming among congressional Republicans. That shows a distance from [Senate bill sponsors Sens. John McCain and Edward M. Kennedy] and what the White House has been saying recently,” John Fonte, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who is helping organize the letter, said in an interview.
Mr. Fonte said the 39 conservatives — all regular commentators on radio and TV — plan to push their case for enforcement-first over the nation’s airwaves and the Internet.
“Adopting cosmetic legislation to appear to be ‘doing something’ about enforcement, but which actually makes the situation worse, is not statesmanship, it is demagogy,” the signers say.
The Senate faced this proposition, in the form of an amendment from Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, that would have delayed the Senate’s new legalization program until after the borders were secure. It was defeated, 55 votes to 40 votes. Republican senators voted for it, 33 votes against 18 votes. Four Republicans did not vote.
Mr. Bush has tried to take the enforcement-first argument out of consideration, announcing he would deploy 6,000 National Guard troops to the border and hire more U.S. Border Patrol agents, and then by strengthening interior enforcement by the Department of Homeland Security.
The White House argues that public opinion is swinging toward Mr. Bush’s position. Last week, press secretary Tony Snow pointed out a Wall Street Journal poll that showed 50 percent favored a guest-worker program over deporting illegal aliens. According to the poll of 1,002 adults, 33 percent favored deportation.
That poll, like the White House’s own polling, did not ask about the path to citizenship for illegal aliens that both the Senate and Mr. Bush now favor. Mr. Snow said that questions about border security have “gotten past that important benchmark.”
He said that means Republicans who want border security first now can say they “got our way” and that Republicans can now consider a guest-worker plan and a path to citizenship for some illegal aliens.
“In many ways, the president has answered the fundamental concern of many House members in saying, we’re going to go ahead, in taking affirmative measures, to shore up the borders,” Mr. Snow said.
But Mr. Fonte said the new steps are all the more reason to wait.