- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2005

President Bush will send two Cabinet secretaries before Congress today to try to boost his guest-worker proposal, but momentum in Congress has shifted from broad reform, like his, to a law-enforcement crackdown.

Mr. Bush has called for allowing new foreign workers and current illegal aliens to enter a temporary-worker program that would require them to return home eventually. The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao offers the chance to regain the initiative for that plan.

“No matter what the administration witnesses say, it’s going to be revealing,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which lobbies for broad legalization of illegal aliens. “Everyone knows the only way that immigration reform happens is if the president leads on it. And if they come and mouth platitudes and stay vague, it’ll be interpreted in both chambers as an abdication of his leadership role.”

But recent events show the issue might have passed Mr. Bush by.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, endorsed an enforcement-first approach, telling The Washington Times that he will put a border-security bill on the Senate floor first and later turn to some guest-worker plan. That follows statements by House Republican leaders that they intend to start with an enforcement bill.

“That’s a real shift for Frist, and it’s an important sign,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants stricter immigration limits. “I would interpret this not so much as a change on the part of what the White House wants, but a change on Frist’s part that he doesn’t need to obey the commands of the White House.”

Mr. Krikorian, who will testify alongside Mr. Sharry on a second panel after the secretaries, said the politics of the issue have moved substantially in the past few months toward ensuring enforcement first.

House Republicans say the issue about which they hear the most at town hall meetings is cracking down on illegal immigration. They have told their leaders that the House must pass an enforcement-only bill before the end of the year to take something back home to voters.

Trying to combat that belief, the Manhattan Institute, a free-market conservative think tank that supports legalization, released a poll yesterday of Republican voters that found many of them oppose enforcement-only plans and want full legalization of the 11 million current illegal aliens.

In a head-to-head matchup, the poll found that 58 percent supported a legalization plan and 33 percent favored tightening border security and deporting illegal aliens. In another head-to-head question, 47 percent supported full legalization and 45 percent supported a temporary program requiring workers to return home eventually.

“The tough-talking swagger of the kind we’re hearing from people in Congress who want enforcement only is not a political winner,” said Tamar Jacoby, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “It won’t solve problems, and it won’t win votes.”

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and sponsor of a guest-worker plan, said yesterday that he was surprised by Mr. Frist’s remarks.

“I wouldn’t read too much into this enforcement-only approach. I think the leader has previously endorsed the idea of comprehensive reform,” Mr. Cornyn said. “I’m not aware if he has changed his view.”

Mr. Cornyn’s plan would allow illegal aliens five years to register and then leave the country, would boost border and interior enforcement, and would create a temporary-worker program with incentives to ensure the workers leave at the end.

The major counterproposal in the Senate, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, offers a multistep path to citizenship for illegal aliens and an annual increase of 400,000 foreign workers, who also would be on a path to citizenship.

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