- The Washington Times - Monday, November 25, 2002

DANA POINT, Calif. Republican governors over the weekend defended President Bush's immigration policies, arguing that he isn't proposing amnesty, as critics claim, for Mexicans and others who entered the United States illegally.
Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, the newly elected chairman of the Republican Governors Association, disputed the critics' interpretation of Mr. Bush's policy.
"It was never defined as amnesty for illegals so much as moving back to legalized work programs," said Mr. Owens.
But other RGA members, here for their first annual meeting since the midterm elections, agreed that the issue posed at least some problems for the president with his political base.
Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., elected Nov. 5 as Maryland's next governor, said, "Probably the most negative feedback I've received in my eight years in Congress occurred as a result of" a House vote last year on the immigration issue.
"It is an important political issue with the Republican political base these days," he said. "The president has made incredible strides on the issues of education, terrorism, defense and taxes, but the [immigration] issue, in my view, still lags behind."
The Washington Times reported last week that Tony Garza, new U.S. ambassador to Mexico, said the Bush administration will renew its push for what critics say amounts to amnesty for illegal aliens who have established a stable employment history in the country.
The new Bush plan does not appear to go as far as the original proposal, which critics said would have led to amnesty for as many as 3 million illegal aliens now living in the United States.
Mr. Bush worked out that original policy initiative with Mexican President Vicente Fox before the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Money sent back to Mexico by immigrants legal and illegal accounts for a significant portion of Mexico's gross domestic product.
The Bush policy was aimed in part at helping Republicans gain Hispanic votes. And RGA members meeting here were reminded by Bush administration representatives and others that Hispanics constitute the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. electorate. The Republican Party must gain a growing share of the Hispanic vote in order to survive.
But September 11 dealt the Bush immigration policy a setback, as concerns mounted over the threat that foreign terrorists were seeping through America's porous borders.
"Clearly September 11 has changed the dynamic," Mr. Ehrlich said. "Immigration is viewed with suspicion across the board, particularly by the Republican base."
During their meeting, the Republican governors repeatedly acknowledged their debt to Mr. Bush, whose popularity with voters helped Republican candidates exceed expectations in the midterm elections.
Mr. Owens said he wants "to see what it is that the Bush administration or Congress does come up with" on immigration, before making any judgment.
Many rank-and-file Republicans have viewed the administration's use of phrases such as "guest worker program" and "putting people on the path to citizenship" as politically inspired euphemisms for immigrant amnesty.
"I don't necessarily agree with that view," Mr. Owens said. "Here's how I would phrase it: If we move to the program where people have a right to come across the border so long as they have a job, and we then know who they are, they can move across the border to a paying job."
The Colorado governor said: "So if there is a job for someone from Mexico, Canada or Brazil, they can come in legally for that job, we know who they are, they stay during that job period and they can also move back as they need to to see their family. I don't think that's providing amnesty for illegals, so in this case the distinction is very, very important."
Mr. Ehrlich said that when he was in the House last year, "there was a lot of misinformation" about Mr. Bush's amnesty proposal. "I think what we're saying is that once appropriately articulated, that fear factor will not be there," Mr. Ehrlich said.
Some have accused Republicans of pandering to immigrants in a bid for Hispanic support.
"Pandering I think is an inappropriate term," Mr. Ehrlich said. "The president believes in his heart we are a nation of immigrants and we have to be fair. We are the land of opportunity.
"So I don't think it's a large risk because even parts of our base who have philosophical differences with this president tend to forgive him on this or any other issue, because they like him so much," Mr. Ehrlich said.


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