The Bush administration is pushing Congress to act on the president’s plan for granting amnesty to millions of Mexican workers living and working illegally in the United States.
Amnesty and the related “guest-worker” issue have surfaced anew partly because Mr. Bush is preparing once more to take up the matter with Mexican President Vicente Fox in Monterrey, Mexico, on March 22.
Mr. Bush has previously declared his commitment to “make sure that [illegal workers] labor is legal” and to “consider ways for a guest worker to earn green-card status.”
Administration officials insist that, although the subject faded from the minds of many after the September 11 attacks, it has remained a priority for Mr. Bush.
James W. Ziglar, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, for weeks has been insisting the issue is alive.
“Some believe that our migration talks with Mexico have been forgotten in the wake of September 11. I assure you that is not the case,” he told a gathering of pro-immigration organization leaders at the National Immigration Forum Conference earlier this month.
Rep. Christopher B. Cannon, Utah Republican, who serves as the White House point man on the issue, has been lobbying congressional opponents of the proposal.
“I can confirm that the White House is pressuring representatives to act,” says an aide to Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, who is a leading opponent of amnesty.
Mr. Tancredo chairs the Congressional Caucus on Immigration Reform. Granting amnesty would reward lawbreakers, he says, and would be “a kick in the teeth to the thousands of individuals across the world who are legally attempting to enter the United States.”
“Instead, the U.S. is saying, ‘Why wait? Sneak on in.’”
Mr. Ziglar outlined the administration’s goals earlier this month at the immigration forum conference, where he said that ranking State Department and INS officials have been meeting with “high level Mexican officials” on amnesty and related immigration issues.
“If we could find a way to move a substantial portion of the current illegal flow from Mexico into legal channels via some kind of temporary-worker program and combine that with new cooperative law-enforcement arrangements with Mexico, we could benefit the U.S. economy, [and] we could substantially reduce illegal immigration,” the INS commissioner said.
Another administration goal is to “normalize” the status of a yet-to-be-determined number of the estimated 3.5 million illegal workers from Mexico living in the United States. However, critics say normalizing status is a euphemism for granting amnesty and evokes memories of 1986.
That year, in an attempt to cope with illegal immigration, Congress granted 2.7 million people the coveted “green cards” that denote permanent U.S. residency and the prospect of citizenship. But the flow of undocumented Mexicans did not stop after 1986 it increased.
Basing their observations on INS statistics, researchers point out that by 1997 a new group of illegal aliens had entirely replaced the formerly illegal aliens and that the population of undocumented residents had again reached 5 million, the pre-1986 number. In the years after the amnesty, the number of illegal immigrants grew to more than 800,000 a year, as relatives of the newly legal U.S. residents joined them.
“President Bush has not been specific, but no one is seriously talking about amnesty of such a broad-scale program,” said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum.
Miss Kelley said her impression is that Mr. Bush wants to grant green cards to illegal workers who have been in the country for a long time, are employed, have family connections here, have passed background checks and have no criminal record.
Miss Kelley the immigration forum backs such a plan, as do most pro-immigration organizations.
Some suggest that Mexican workers be given renewable, temporary work permits. After six to 10 years, the workers could be made eligible for permanent residency. This sort of “guest worker” arrangement would comply with Mexican insistence on a plan that permits workers to flow easily between Mexico and the United States.
The administration argues as do practically all who back amnesty and guest-worker programs that the nation needs foreign workers to farm and garden and to do the menial hotel, restaurant and hospital jobs that many American workers disdain. They say their cheap labor benefits U.S. consumers by keeping down the cost of food and services.
Economists who oppose amnesty and guest-worker programs say that reasoning is false. They say using cheap foreign labor stifles business innovation and shifts labor costs from employers to taxpayers, who must pay for the expanded welfare and health care required by the low-wage aliens.
Democrats in Congress who favor Mr. Bush’s amnesty and guest-worker initiative say any new laws should benefit illegals regardless of where they are from.
But the events of September 11 make that suggestion controversial. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies, asked: “Would we now give green cards to undocumented residents from Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iran and countries that export terrorists?”