Thursday, December 11, 2003

The White House yesterday said a new immigration review is under way that could lead to amnesty for millions of illegal aliens living and working in the United States.

Confirmation of the review came during a White House briefing, just two days after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said during a town hall meeting in Miami that the government had to “afford some kind of legal status” to the 8 million to 12 million illegal aliens in the country.

“We’ve taken steps to improve border security — significant steps, I might add; have made great progress there. We’ve taken steps to improve the immigration infrastructure,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “Those are some foundations for moving forward on a more orderly, safe and humane migration policy.

“And this is a matter that really is under review at this point. We continue to look at it,” Mr. McClellan said.

Mr. Ridge, during a question-and-answer period after his Miami speech, said he would not support granting citizenship to illegal aliens now in the country “because they violated the law to get here,” but the government needed to “determine how you can legalize their presence” and then institute an immigration enforcement policy to prevent future illegal entries.

His comments drew harsh criticism from some congressional sources and immigration opponents.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, said Mr. Ridge should resign if he is unable or unwilling to enforce existing immigration laws. He said the secretary’s comments would “open a floodgate” of illegal aliens “trying to sneak into the United States in order to be first in line for amnesty.”

Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR), questioned what security interests of the United States were being served “by granting legal status to people whose identities cannot be confirmed and who already have shown an unwillingness to observe U.S. law?

“The law has to be respected before you grandfather in the very people who disrespected it,” he said.

Various amnesty bills are pending in Congress, although none has been scheduled for debate or a vote.

Congress approved an amnesty program in 1986, granting legal status to 2.7 million illegal aliens then in the country. The program contained increased enforcement and penalty policies aimed at ending illegal immigration, although the illegal alien population in the United States today is more than twice the total in 1986.

Mr. McClellan said Mr. Bush “has always been a strong believer that America should be a welcoming society. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants, as he often points out.”

He said discussions with Mexico on a new amnesty proposal were ongoing prior to the September 11 attacks, but were halted.

Mr. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox had agreed to consider granting permanent residency, or green cards, to as many as 3 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States.

Mr. McClellan also said that although some people had interpreted Mr. Ridge’s comments as “some broad amnesty discussion,” it was not that at all.

“He’s very involved in, obviously, overseeing border security and immigration matters, now under the new Department of Homeland Security,” he said. “And I think he’s been looking at the issue of the large number of illegal immigrants we do have in the country and looking at those that could be threats and those that are here for other reasons.

“And so, he’s just talking about the realities that we are facing now,” he said.

Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security’s undersecretary for border and transportation security, also defended Mr. Ridge’s comments, saying they simply reflected ongoing debate in Congress over the immigration issue.

“Secretary Ridge addressed it very honestly yesterday, engaged in that debate, but clearly this administration has not taken a firm policy position on that and the debate continues,” Mr. Hutchinson said.

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