The Bush administration’s stance on immigration, already the cause of a political split with some Republicans in Congress, is beginning to erode lawmakers’ support for such presidential policy priorities as trade deals and extending the Patriot Act.
A handful of Republican lawmakers are citing the high rate of illegal immigration and the potential for an increase in foreign-worker visas as reasons to oppose the Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), which is expected to be considered by the House this month.
And last month, 10 House Republicans sent a letter to Mr. Bush telling him that they “would have grave reservations about supporting any extension” of the USA Patriot Act unless Mr. Bush first agrees to specific steps to boost the Border Patrol and immigration law enforcement inland.
Unless approved by Congress, 16 provisions from the 2001 law will expire at the end of this year.
“Asking for such advanced tools as roving wiretaps while ignoring basic border security is like asking for the installation of a state-of-the-art video surveillance system in a house without door locks — it simply doesn’t make sense,” the Republicans wrote.
For now, the opposition is limited. The 10 Republicans balking at renewing the Patriot Act, all of whom already opposed Mr. Bush on immigration, are unlikely to torpedo the Patriot extensions.
But Rep. Walter B. Jones, a North Carolina Republican who signed the letter and who plans to vote against CAFTA, said immigration will begin to affect other policies.
“I cannot identify those policy issues at this time, but I think the closer we get to the 2006 election, absolutely,” he said. “I believe this will be one of the top three domestic issues for this country, because I’m hearing it not just from my district, but from other congressmen.”
For Mr. Jones, the opposition to CAFTA is based on the history of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, Canada and the United States. Illegal immigration from Mexico has jumped 350 percent under NAFTA, Mr. Jones said.
“We were being told when NAFTA became the law this would help create opportunities for Mexicans and more would remain in Mexico. That’s turned out not to be true,” he said. “CAFTA, the present bill, does very little to help labor and environmental standards of those countries, so those workers are going to be like those in Mexico — they’re going to look for better jobs.”
Other Republicans, such as Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a leader in the immigration- control movement, say that as drafted, CAFTA confers a right to market services in other countries, thus giving nations a right to demand temporary work visas for their citizens.
In a letter to Rep. Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican who raised similar questions, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Rob Portman responded to the growing concerns.
“The administration is acutely aware of congressional sensitivities with respect to the inclusion of immigration provisions in trade agreements. Accordingly, the CAFTA-DR does not contain any provisions pertaining to immigration,” he said.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Jim Mendenhall, the USTR’s acting general counsel, said CAFTA-DR does not grant private parties — people or companies — a right to demand work visas.
Christopher Padilla, assistant U.S. trade representative, said illegal Mexican immigration would have been much higher without NAFTA.
“The question really should be: How much higher would illegal immigration be from Mexico had we not created millions of new jobs in both countries as a result of the economic growth of NAFTA?” he said.
The slide in support because of immigration isn’t limited to specific policies.
When Mr. Jones and Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, joined two Democrats at a press conference in June in announcing a resolution calling for troops to begin pulling out of Iraq in October 2006, both Republicans cited securing the border as a pressing need from which the war was drawing attention.
Many Republicans have been calling on the president to do more to control the U.S. borders and to enforce laws calling for those here illegally to be deported.
Mr. Bush, meanwhile, favors a plan to increase “green cards,” signifying legal immigration, and create a new program for foreign workers for those here illegally and future workers from overseas.
That plan has split both Republicans and Democrats, although majorities of both parties are opposed, according to a February poll taken by Westhill Partners for Hotline.