Monday, May 17, 2004

The issue that has the potential to be the most volatile politically in the 2004 election is not Iraq, the economy or same-sex marriages. At this writing, it would appear to be the wildly unpopular idea of granting illegal aliens what amounts to amnesty — the opportunity to stay in this country, work, secure social services, become citizens and, in some jurisdictions, perhaps vote even prior to becoming citizens.

So radioactive is this idea across party, demographic, class and geographic lines that President Bush has wisely decided effectively to shelve the immigration reform plan he announced with much fanfare earlier this year. With the lowest job approval ratings of his presidency, the last thing he needs is a legislative brawl that will at best fracture, and at worst massively alienate his base.

It appears unlikely to help him much with Americans of other stripes, either. Significant numbers of independents and Democrats (although, to be sure, not John Kerry’s left-wing constituency) — even Hispanic ones — feel as conservative Republicans do: Rewarding those who violate our immigration statutes is corrosive to the rule of law, on net detrimental to our economy and a serious national security vulnerability.

Unfortunately for Mr. Bush, one of his most loyal friends in the U.S. Senate, Republican conservative Larry Craig of Idaho, is poised to saddle the president’s re-election bid with just such a divisive initiative: S.1645, the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act of 2003 (better known as the AgJobs bill).

AgJobs is, in some ways, even worse than the president’s plan for temporary workers. While most experts disagree, at least Mr. Bush insists that his initiative will not amount to amnesty for illegal aliens.

No such demurral is possible about S.1645. By the legislation’s own terms, an illegal alien will be turned into “an alien lawfully admitted for temporary residence,” provided they had managed to work unlawfully in an agricultural job in the United States for a minimum of 100 hours — in other words, for just 21/2 workweeks — during the 18 months prior to August 31, 2003.

Once so transformed, they can stay in the U.S. indefinitely while applying for permanent resident status. From there, it is a matter of time before they can become citizens, so long as they work in the agricultural sector for 675 hours over the next six years.

The Craig bill would confer this amnesty not only on farmworking illegal aliens who are in this country — estimates of those eligible run to more than 800,000. It would also extend the opportunity to those who otherwise qualified but had previously left the United States. No one knows how many would fall in this category and want to return as legal workers. But, a safe bet is that there are hundreds of thousands of them.

If any were needed, S.1645 offers a further incentive to the illegals: Your family can stay, as well. Alternatively, if they are not with you, you can bring them in, too — cutting in line ahead of others who made the mistake of abiding by, rather than ignoring, our laws.

And just in case the illegal aliens are daunted by the prospect of filling out such paperwork as would be required to effect the changes in status authorized by the AgJobs bill, S.1645 offers still more: free counsel from, ironically, the bane of conservatives like Sen. Larry Craig and many of his Republican co-sponsors — the highly controversial, leftist and taxpayer-underwritten Legal Services Corp.

Needless to say, such provisions seem unlikely to be well-received by the majority of law-abiding Americans. Nor, for that matter, do they appear to have much prospect of passage in the less-self-destructive House of Representatives.

Yet, if Mr. Craig presses for action on his legislation, the Senate leadership might be unable to spare either President Bush or itself the predictable blow-back: As of today, the Senate Web site indicates the Idahoan has 61 cosponsors, two more than are needed to cut off debate and bring the legislation to a vote; 11 more than would be needed for its passage.

In short, thanks to intense pressure from an unusual coalition forged by the agricultural industry and illegal alien advocacy groups, the Senate might endorse the sort of election-altering initiative that precipitates voter response like that made famous by the movie “Network News”: “I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore.”

Some, perhaps including the normally shrewd Mr. Craig, may calculate that such voters will have nowhere to go if the alternative to Republican control of the White House and Senate would be Democrats who are, if anything, even less responsible when it comes to amnesty (and social services, voting rights, etc.) for illegal aliens.

The truth of the matter, though — as President Bush’s political operatives apparently concluded after they trotted out their amnesty-light initiative last January — is voters don’t have to vote Democratic to change Washington’s political line-up. They just have to stay home on Election Day. And S.1645 could give them powerful reason to do so.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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