- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2001

President Bush's handling of illegal Mexican immigration is drawing praise from, of all people, Hispanic Democrats.
But the explosive issue is making some Republicans hotter than Texas in August.
They fear that it will put millions of illegal Hispanic immigrants on the path to U.S. citizenship, with far more of them voting Democratic rather than Republican at the polls.
"Bush is doing very well in carrying out the strategy he set for himself to appeal to Hispanics," said Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
"The flip side is he is taking his party into uncharted territory, and his party is very uncomfortable there," Mr. Reyes, who is of Mexican descent, said in an interview.
"It is clear there is a Hispanic agenda on the part of the administration," Mr. Reyes said. "There is enough anecdotal information that I think the one driving this is [chief Bush strategist] Karl Rove and essentially following the same strategy that worked for President Bush when he was the governor of Texas.
"The difference is going to be whether the president is going to be able to prevail with his own party," said Mr. Reyes. "That is the dilemma the president has created for himself by his aggressive strategy to appeal to Hispanics, but I think it is the right strategy."
Even the heavily Democrat-leaning La Raza, which describes itself as the largest Hispanic civil rights organization in the country, is impressed with Mr. Bush's effort to embrace Hispanic voters.
"I am absolutely convinced what Bush has begun to do is working with Latinos and immigrants and is a small slam for the Bush administration," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, which has a staff of 100 and boasts 260 affiliated organizations around the country.
Hispanic Democrats and activist groups are responding to a New York Times story last month, which said that the Bush administration is considering granting amnesty to some 3 million illegal Mexican immigrants residing in the United States. Mexican President Vicente Fox, who will be visiting Mr. Bush next month, is expected to lobby the administration to give amnesty to illegal Mexican workers.
According to the 2000 census, the Hispanic population of the United States grew about 58 percent over the past decade and now makes up 12.5 percent of the total population — rivaling black Americans, historically the country's largest minority group.
The amnesty issue, however, has divided the Republican Party and even some administration officials — with some believing that the proposal is an effective way to court the Hispanic vote, while others arguing that it will alienate many rank-and-file party members.
Although several Republican senators and House members said they were flooded with telephone calls objecting to the amnesty proposal, the Hispanic media in the United States and left-leaning Hispanic organization leaders praised the administration on the issue.
"On the left, it was electrifying," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which advocates "more generous policies toward immigration and immigrants."
"If you wanted to send a signal to the fastest-growing segment of voters that you were serious about them, then you would have planned these last few weeks," said Mr. Sharry. "I see a lot of Spanish-language media, and there was a lot of it fawning praise for Bush."
But Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican and a staunch Bush ally, said he is "absolutely" opposed to any program that would grant amnesty to people who broke the country's immigration laws.
Mr. Gramm said in an interview yesterday that amnesty to Mexican aliens would reward lawlessness and encourage further illegal immigration.
Even pro-immigration conservatives have doubts about the proposal — especially its effect on the country's political landscape.
"Amnesty would in fact create political problems," said Linda Chavez, a Hispanic who was Mr. Bush's first nominee to be labor secretary. "If you create vast new numbers of citizens who skew to one party or another as Latinos do to the Democratic Party, you are asking the party in power to put a time limit on its ability to win elections."
Although Mr. Bush has said that the blanket amnesty proposal is not under consideration, some aides say privately that whatever plan he does approve will let undocumented immigrant workers with no criminal record apply for temporary legal status and eventually put them on the path to U.S. citizenship.
Despite the objections of Mr. Gramm, such a plan has the support of some conservative Republicans in the Senate. "Ultimately, on the amnesty equation, all roads will lead to citizenship, though it might be delayed," Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, said in an interview.
As an alternative to granting amnesty, Mr. Gramm favors doing something that he says Mr. Fox also favors: allowing illegal Mexican immigrants a one-time opportunity to join a guest-worker program.
"If they come forward and have not been convicted of a felony, they will be guaranteed to a one-year work permit subject to renewal at least twice," said Mr. Gramm.
But Mr. Sharry says the only way for Republicans to compete successfully for the fastest-growing segment of the electorate is to put illegal Hispanic immigrants on the road to legalization of their status and citizenship.
"Bush won't promise that legalizing the status of illegal immigrants will lead to citizenship because he is worried about Phil Gramm, but that will make it harder for Bush to appeal to Hispanic voters, and Democrats will light up that issue," said Mr. Sharry.
All sides in the debate agree with Mr. Sharry's observation that "the current approach to U.S.-Mexico immigration is broken." How to fix it is what divides Republicans in the White House and Congress.
In response to those who argue that amnesty would undermine the rule of law, Mr. Sharry says that Mexican workers and U.S. employers have followed the law — "the law of supply and demand."
He also argues that few workers would sign up for such a program unless it carries the promise of permanent residency and the right to apply for citizenship.
"Why would a Mexican who has been working here illegally for five years sign up for what amounts to his own deportation in three years?" Mr. Sharry said.
That claim is disputed by Mr. Gramm who says that a guest-worker program would be supported by many Hispanics who believe in upholding the rule of law.
"Working Hispanics in my state would be inclined toward a guest-worker program and would oppose amnesty," said Mr. Gramm. "Amnesty is a bad policy that rewards illegal behavior and encourages more of it."

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