- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

President Bush tomorrow will propose sweeping changes to U.S. immigration policy that would allow a portion of the 8 million illegal aliens in the country to move toward legal status without penalty, a plan sure to meet strong resistance from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Under the proposal, which will come just days before Mr. Bush meets on the issue with Mexican President Vicente Fox in Monterrey, illegal aliens from Mexico and possibly other countries who pay Social Security taxes but provide false identification numbers would be allowed to collect benefits.

“The president has long talked about the importance of having an immigration policy that matches willing workers with willing employers,” said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan yesterday. “It’s important for America to be a welcoming society. We are a nation of immigrants, and we’re better for it.”

Detractors on Capitol Hill, even those inclined to support most administration initiatives, question the wisdom of the immigration-reform proposal.

“When does [it] become ‘adjusted work status’ and when does it become amnesty for illegal immigrants?” said an aide to a senior conservative House Republican. “Surely, something has to be done, but creating an adjusted legal status for people here illegally has not gotten much traction.

“There are some fairly deep divisions among Republicans on this,” the aide said, predicting that the president’s planwould be received rather cooly.

The changes in immigration law proposed by the president have long been advocated by Mr. Fox, whose close relationship with Mr. Bush has been strained since border security efforts were beefed up after the September 11 attacks and since Mexico refused to support the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Mr. Fox described the plan last month as a provision that would allow Mexicans “to go and come each year as many times as they want, without problems, so that they can work with documents in the United States.”

Mr. Bush’s plan will be introduced officially just five days before a special Jan. 12-14 Summit of the Americas, and is nearly identical to a bill introduced in July by Arizona Republican Reps. Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe, and Sen. John McCain.

That bill has garnered seven co-sponsors in the House and one co-sponsor in the Senate.

Mr. Flake said he’s “very excited to hear” that the president endorses the general thrust of their bill, and thinks Mr. Bush has the political clout to win over reluctant Republicans.

“We’ve known all along that in order to move anything in an election year, you need presidential leadership, and it sounds like [the White House] is prepared to move,” Mr. Flake said yesterday.

Mr. McClellan said the president’s plan will address the concerns many Republicans have over securing the country’s borders.

“In the post-September 11th time frame we have gone to extraordinary steps to strengthen our border security and make America more secure,” Mr. McClellan said, stressing that the borders can be secure at the same time that immigration policy addresses “an economic need that exists.”

With this announcement, Mr. Bush will make immigration reform the first significant policy issue of 2004, a presidential election year.

The aide to the House conservative said the president might be picking the wrong issue to kick off the campaign season.

“This isn’t the most unifying Republican policy that the White House could have unveiled,” the aide said, adding that the final result from Congress — if anything is passed at all — is not likely to mirror the president’s plan and is likely to be changed significantly by legislators.

“The White House and Congress will really have to flesh a lot of these details out if it’s going to be appealing to conservatives,” the aide said. “There is a lot of concern that we aren’t doing all that we need to be doing for border security.”

Mr. Flake said the plan, if it reflects the bill the president co-sponsored in the summer, actuallywould reduce the number of migrant workers who decide to remain in the country.

The average stay of a Mexican migrant worker is nine years, Mr. Flake said, adding that in the 1980s, when border patrols were more lax, the average stay was a little more than two years.

“Right now, we have no clue who is here, how long they’ve been here or when they are supposed to go home,” Mr. Flake said. “If you have a legal program for willing workers to be matched with willing employers, then you can put people through ports of entry” rather than have them spill over the border with Mexico.

Mr. Flake said Congress is unlikely to endorse any plan unless, like his, it punishes those who would use the program as a quick path to legal residency status.

The bill Mr. Flake, Mr. McCain and Mr. Kolbe endorse would impose a fine of $1,500 on those who attempted to exploit the new law, and force them to wait longer than normal to gain legal residency status.

“Our plan is not amnesty, and I don’t think the president’s is either,” Mr. Flake said. “Once people recognize that is the case, you’ll see a lot more support for it.”

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