Tuesday, March 16, 2004

President Bush tried to jump-start the debate over changing U.S. immigration policy in January, but his proposal isn’t seen as having any chance of success on Capitol Hill by either Democrats or Republicans.

“It’s nonexistent,” said Carlos Espinosa, spokesman for Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and chairman of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, who opposes the plan.

His evaluation was seconded by Democrats and other Republicans who said the schedule and the contentious nature of the issue mean there isn’t time for anything to pass this year.

On Jan. 7, Mr. Bush proposed raising the level of legal immigration and creating a perpetual guest-worker program that would both allow the estimated 8 million to 12 million illegals already in the country to remain and work and allow new applicants from foreign countries to apply for guest-worker status as long as they can find a willing employer.

But his proposal met with objections from both sides. Few lawmakers endorsed his proposal, and many even called it “dead on arrival.”

At root, Mr. Bush’s plan had a key ambiguity — it proposed allowing guest workers to renew their status every three years, but didn’t say whether that would be capped at a certain number of terms.

Conservative opponents said the plan was an amnesty program because it invited those in the United States illegally to gain some perpetual legal status. Liberal opponents saw it as unpracticeable and said it could become a scheme to identify illegal aliens and deport them.

Rep. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said it was “better described as a path to deportation than a path to the American dream.”

Mr. Bush has not submitted specific legislation, and his Jan. 7 speech was just a statement of principles. Since then, he has not put any pressure on Congress to act.

Answering questions with Mexican President Vicente Fox at a joint news conference in Crawford, Texas, two weeks ago, the president sounded resigned to no action.

“I certainly hope the Congress takes this issue up, but there’s no telling what’s going to happen in an election year, so it’s very difficult to give a date,” Mr. Bush said.

He has insisted that his program doesn’t amount to amnesty, but he received a wake-up call a few weeks after announcing his plan, when administration officials met with Republican members of Congress at a retreat in Philadelphia.

There, the administration was told how badly the proposal went over with Republican constituents, who view it as amnesty.

“I don’t think they expected the blowback they got. The amount was tremendous — the amount of phone calls, letters, e-mails,” Mr. Espinosa said. “From that point, you haven’t heard the administration say anything on it, and most members haven’t either. The one thing that was agreed on in Philadelphia was this is the most volatile issue they’ve dealt with.”

For now, those who support a program of legalization are losing the all-important battle over defining the issue.

A poll by Andres McKenna Polling and Research taken after Mr. Bush’s proposal found that 73 percent saw the noncitizens as “illegal aliens,” while 25 percent saw them as “undocumented workers.”

The poll also found that 36 percent supported the president’s plan, although just 6 percent supported it strongly, and 53 percent opposed it, including 27 percent who opposed it strongly.

In addition, the legislative schedule works against action this year, Senate Republican aides said. Members of Congress expect a shortened legislative session because of November’s elections and expect little to get done after the summer political conventions. A proposal as ambitious as the president’s would require a series of hearings and hard work writing a bill — something that is unlikely.

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