Thursday, February 19, 2004

The number of illegal aliens caught crossing into the United States increased dramatically just days after President Bush proposed a guest-worker program that would give legal status to millions of illegal immigrants now in this country, according to the union that represents the Border Patrol’s 9,000 field agents.

The National Border Patrol Council said apprehension totals increased threefold in the San Diego area alone, adding that the vast majority of aliens detained along the border told arresting agents that they had come to the United States seeking amnesty.

Most of those arrested and, eventually, deported had no history of immigration violations, the council said.

Law-enforcement authorities, immigration specialists and others — including the council — had predicted that the Bush proposal, outlined Jan. 7, would lead to increased illegal immigration by those seeking to take advantage of what many perceived to be an offer of limited amnesty.

The White House painstakingly has denied that the president’s guest-worker proposal offers amnesty, saying instead that illegal aliens who hold jobs in the United States would be given only temporary work permits, not placed on the path to citizenship, and that they eventually would have to go home.

Outlined as a set of principles and not as specific legislation, the Bush proposal does not prescribe any penalties for those who entered the country illegally and would allow them to remain in the United States for renewable three-year periods.

Meanwhile, the Border Patrol has canceled a survey of illegal aliens detained at the U.S.-Mexico border that had sought to establish whether “rumors of amnesty” after Mr. Bush proposed his guest-worker program influenced their decision to cross into the United States.

Described as routine information gathering “critical to the better enforcement of immigration laws,” the confidential survey — developed by Border Patrol officials in Washington — was scrubbed Jan. 27 after its public disclosure. Agency executives determined that the survey, which had begun two weeks earlier, had become compromised.

“The questions are no longer being asked, but the Border Patrol will continue to gather and analyze operational intelligence as necessary,” said Mario Villarreal, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Border Patrol’s parent agency.

The Border Patrol survey has not been made public nor have any preliminary results, but agents said it contained 13 questions, including one specifically concerning the guest-worker proposal. The agents referred to the survey as the “amnesty questionnaire,” although the Border Patrol denied that it was politically motivated or that it was intended to imply that Mr. Bush was calling for a general amnesty.

The government has estimated that 8 million to 12 million illegal aliens, mostly Mexican nationals, are in the United States.

Since the Bush proposal was announced, the administration has rolled out its top immigration officials and several senior Republican senators to endorse it, saying it would fix a broken immigration system, allow U.S. businesses to hire needed workers, bring illegal aliens into the mainstream economy and assure greater homeland security.

Several leading Republicans have questioned the proposal and others have suggested that Mr. Bush needs to do a better job of explaining the proposal to a public overwhelmingly opposed to the legalization of millions of illegal aliens.

Sen. Jon Kyl — Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security, and a member of the subcommittee on immigration, border security and citizenship — said the Bush plan was “subject to misinterpretation” and, as a result, “needed further clarification.”

Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and a member of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, border security and claims, said that the proposal, by definition, is an amnesty program and that past amnesty programs “have not reduced illegal immigration; rather, they have increased illegal immigration.”

“Amnesty rewards those who broke our laws, and thus encourages others to do the same,” Mr. Smith said. “Our immigration policies should do the opposite — discourage lawbreakers by sending the message that illegal entry into the United States will not be rewarded.”

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has asked Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to explain whether “rumors of amnesty” concerning the Bush proposal had played any role in attempts by illegal aliens to cross the border.

Mr. Grassley told Mr. Ridge in a letter this week he is concerned that illegal aliens are risking their lives and putting their futures in the hands of corrupt alien smugglers in an attempt to gain entry to the United States to cash in on pending immigration reform that could offer them limited amnesty.

He said the “notion of legalization has been erroneously conveyed around the country and even abroad,” adding that the Border Patrol questionnaire “raises some questions as to the consequence of the president’s reform initiative.”

In his letter, Mr. Grassley asked Mr. Ridge to determine who authorized the questionnaire, who tallied the responses, what the preliminary report suggested, how aliens were hearing about “amnesty proposals” and whether those “rumors” were influencing their decision to enter the United States.

The National Border Patrol Council has told its members to challenge the guest-worker proposal, calling it a “slap in the face to anyone who has ever tried to enforce the immigration laws of the United States.”

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