- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

The Bush administration is examining several options to stop the chronic flow of illegal immigration from Mexico, following the president's summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox last week.

If the Bush administration decides to change the current policy of trying to stop all illegal immigration, one proposal would give amnesty to 4 million to 7 million illegal immigrants. Another would give immigrants visas renewable each year as long as they hold jobs.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Fox announced after their Friday meeting that they would form a joint "immigration working group" to stem the flow of illegal immigrants across the Mexican border.

"They share the same goal. They believe that people need to be able to have the fruits of their labor, and they believe that the economic benefits to both countries need to be recognized of the migration," U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said after the meeting.

About 275,000 illegal immigrants cross the U.S.-Mexican border each year to live and work in the United States, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Many take jobs in construction, agriculture and cleaning services.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft are the American representatives leading the working group. They will be joined by the Mexican foreign secretary and the Mexican secretary of the interior.

Mr. Fox supports amnesty for the Mexicans living illegally in the United States. Mr. Bush has said it is not "the best way," but he would consider all options.

To qualify for amnesty, illegal immigrants would need to register with the INS.

U.S. supporters of amnesty include the AFL-CIO, the national federation of 66 major labor unions. The labor federation officially endorsed amnesty at its winter meeting in Los Angeles last week.

The AFL-CIO historically has wanted the government to crack down on illegal immigrants, saying they take jobs away from American workers. Now, with union membership dropping last year to a 60-year low, its leaders see the immigrants as a source of new members and political strength.

But Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican, said his guest-worker proposal is a better alternative than amnesty.

Unlike amnesty, guest workers would not be eligible for resident "green cards," a first step toward citizenship. The number of workers who qualify, and their countries of origin, have not been determined.

Instead, they would be required to return to Mexico at the end of their visa period of about a year and would need to reapply to come back. Then they could collect money accrued in their savings accounts, which would help the Mexican economy, Mr. Gramm said.

Mr. Gramm says illegal immigrants often suffer abuse by employers, giving them an incentive to register as guest workers. They also would be given priority over foreign residents to be eligible for the program.

Under his proposal, the laborers would be covered by U.S. wage and hour laws, qualify for emergency health care benefits and become eligible for IRA-like savings accounts when they returned home.

The timetable for a policy decision will depend on the working group, said White House spokesman Mary Ellen Countryman.

"Right now, this is a presidential directive for them to get together to do something," Miss Countryman said yesterday. "You've got to wait and let them get together and make their agenda."

Washington-area Hispanic organizations said a policy change on immigration could benefit both the United States and Mexico.

Charles Kamasaki, senior vice president for the National Council of La Raza, a national Hispanic advocacy organization, said anything the Bush administration does to benefit Mexico could provide equal benefit to the United States.

"It makes some sense for the United States to consider how it can improve the standard of living for most Mexicans," Mr. Kamasaki said. "That doesn't just have trade benefits; it reduces incentives for migration. It also increases the market for American goods and services in Mexico."

A Census Bureau report released last month said about 10 percent of U.S. residents are foreign-born. The largest group among them is Mexicans.

"We believe there is power in numbers and clearly we have numbers on our side," said Elizabeth Lisboa-Farrow, U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce board chairman and former D.C. Chamber of Commerce chairman.

The purchasing power of Hispanics in the United States has grown to about $500 billion a year, according to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber. Hispanics also voted in record numbers in the last election.

Mr. Bush supports free trade with Mexico and hinted that it could be the key to any changes in immigration policies.

"Some look south and see problems," Mr. Bush said last week in a speech to State Department employees. "Not me. I look south and see opportunities and potential."

Said Gabriela Lemus, policy and legislative director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, "We need to look at the situation sensibly. How are we going to handle it in a way that is logical and sensible so people don't get hurt and there is not violence on the border? I don't like sending home young men in body bags."

However, Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based public-policy foundation on immigration issues, said quick or easy solutions should not be expected for long-term immigration and trade problems.

"It's kind of a minefield that Bush will be entering as he tiptoes between the various positions," he said.

Both amnesty and guest-worker policies suffer severe shortcomings, Mr. Krikorian said. An amnesty acts as an incentive for more illegal immigration, he said. In 1986, the Reagan administration granted amnesty to 2.7 million illegal aliens. Now some estimates place the number of Mexican illegal immigrants alone at twice that many.

The guest-worker proposal unrealistically assumes the workers will willingly return to their home countries when their visas expire, Mr. Krikorian said. In both cases, illegal immigrants who stay in the United States would create social problems, such as ethnic antagonism and depleting funds for food stamps and other public services, he said.

A better solution is to discourage illegal immigration, Mr. Krikorian said. "We need to make it as difficult as possible for illegal aliens to get a job," he said.

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