- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2005

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said yesterday he favors passing a U.S. guest-worker program only if it requires illegal immigrants to return to their home country before applying for temporary work visas.

“What I understand as a guest-worker program is one where you apply for the guest-worker program in your country of origin, and you have a job when you apply,” said Mr. DeLay, Texas Republican. “You cannot bring your family with you. You commit to work a certain period of time, and you go home. If you want to become a permanent resident or a citizen of the United States you have to get in line with everybody else.”

Mr. DeLay also said too much has been made over disagreements within the Republican Party on the issue of immigration reform.

“People are trying to make this a bigger schism than it really is,” he told reporters at his weekly briefing, adding that at a recent Republican retreat members began to close the divisions.

“After the members started talking to each other, instead of talking past each other and trying to get on TV by flagrant rhetoric, they actually are hearing each other,” he said.

Mr. DeLay said he talked with Mr. Bush at the retreat, and the president was open to Republicans’ suggestions, and in particular Mr. Bush “doesn’t discount the notion, for instance, that you have to apply for it from your country of origin.”

Erin Healy, a spokeswoman for the White House, wouldn’t talk about that particular issue but said Mr. Bush has laid out his principles and “as far as the particulars of legislation beyond those principles, that’s something we’re working with Congress on.”

Today, the House begins debating a border security bill that would crack down on illegal immigrants’ access to driver’s licenses, fill in a gap in the U.S.-Mexico border fence near San Diego, make it easier to deport someone linked to terrorism and allow judges more leeway in denying asylum requests.

But Mr. DeLay said that bill should not be confused with broader immigration reform, which he said will come later in this Congress.

Mr. DeLay’s principles differ from Mr. Bush’s in some key respects, including having illegal immigrants leave the United States and apply for the program from their home countries.

Mr. Bush has not submitted specific legislation, but in announcing his principles last year he said there should be a path for workers to apply from the United States.

“Undocumented workers now here will be required to pay a one-time fee to register for the temporary-worker program. Those who seek to join the program from abroad, and have complied with our immigration laws, will not have to pay any fee,” Mr. Bush said at the time.

He also said a key goal should be to reunify families when one member is living and working illegally in the United States, so his principles included allowing guest workers to bring their families with them.

Immigration advocacy groups aren’t opposed to having illegal immigrants return home to apply, but they say there must be enough incentive to make the program work, such as eventual legal status.

“If people were asked to return home to process their paperwork and they would be permitted to come back into the U.S. to work they might apply for it. But if they don’t have a sense that at the end of this program their hard work is going to be rewarded they probably won’t sign up for it,” said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum.

Her group opposes the bill that the House will begin debating today, which Ms. Kelley called “a box of Band-Aids without adhesive — it’s not going to solve the problem.” She said the solution is to go for a broader package like Mr. Bush is proposing.

Those pushing for a proposal to pass said Mr. DeLay’s comments are a sign that the legislative environment has changed.

“That speaks volumes — something’s going to be done, we’re going to move something,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and the new chairman of the Senate immigration subcommittee. “The fact that the majority leader of the United States Congress is engaged and helping move toward solving the problem is a healthy sign.”

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