On immigrants, a great softening

In half a decade, policy goals have changed from crackdown to extending residency to illegal immigrants.

Washington's fast-moving drive to revamp immigration law reflects a new reality: Anti-immigrant political fervor of the 1990s may have largely disappeared.

The growing clout of the Hispanic vote, plus the spread of immigrant labor throughout all aspects of the US service economy, has seen to that.

Now a Republican president has begun weighing a proposal to allow many workers here illegally to claim permanent resident status. Unions - long bastions of anti-immigrant sentiment - have begun to hum a new, more upbeat tune.

Things have reached the point where four senators from Mexico are scheduled to visit Capitol Hill this week to openly lobby for more lenient treatment of Mexicans who are working here illegally.

"Immigrants are central, important members of American society," says Judith Golub, senior advocate at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "In Washington, there's a broadening recognition of that fact."

In both major US parties, there appears to be a developing consensus that the nation needs a major guest-worker bill this year.

Final form is far from set, of course, but it is likely that any such legislation would allow many immigrants who are already working here to stay, and perhaps to eventually acquire permanent residence.

At issue is how many illegal-immigrant workers would be covered, as well as eligible nationalities.

Last week, an administration task force headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft recommended that the US grant guest-worker status to some 3 million Mexicans currently working illegally. Upon emerging from the shadow economy, these workers would then be eligible to apply for legal residence, and perhaps eventually become citizens.

President Bush's close relationship with his south-of-the-border counterpart, Vicente Fox, has had much to do with his relatively open attitudes toward immigrant regularization. Any proposal is likely to be proferred around the time President Fox arrives in Washington for an official state visit in September.

Others ask, 'Why not us?'

But it's not likely to be limited to Mexicans, the largest group of US illegal-immigrant labor. Thousands of illegals from other nations are working hard here and want regular status, too, noted critics of the administration's task force. Why exclude them?

The White House says it opposes a blanket amnesty. But, bowing to political reality, President Bush said last Thursday that "we'll consider all folks here" when drawing up proposals for some sort of new guest-worker program.

Bush's rhetoric, at the very least, represents a major shift away from the tougher stance many in his party took during the past decade.

Arguably the high-water mark of the harder line toward illegal immigrants was California's 1994 passage of Proposition 187.

That initiative, which was approved by 59 percent of Golden State voters, would have denied public education, social services, and nonemergency health care to illegal immigrants. Federal courts eventually found most of its provisions unconstitutional.

The then-governor of California, Pete Wilson, says he supports Bush in his effort to draw up a limited guest-worker program. But he says the scope of any effort still needs to be carefully defined. "They need to be careful," says Mr. Wilson today. "There are limits to what can be absorbed."

But the number of illegal workers the economy can handle appears to be larger today than it did in 1994 - at least, to all but the most conservative of the GOP.

The boom years of the 1990s made it easier for many states to handle the burden of providing many social services to illegal immigrants.

Perhaps more important, the US economy also vacuumed up illegal workers, despite the threat of employer sanctions. Once concentrated in agriculture, immigrant workers are now found in all sectors of the service economy, say experts, from child care to landscaping to hotel work and restaurants.

Where once the typical illegal immigrant worked in the US for a limited period and then returned home, now many are putting down roots and bringing their families here, if possible.

"There are very large numbers of illegals working and living in this economy, and they aren't able to fully participate," says Dave Smith, director of public policy for the AFL-CIO. "That hurts them and everyone around them."

Attractive numbers

Unions once saw immigrants as stealing jobs from US citizens. Today, their attitude is more accepting - perhaps because they see in immigrants fertile ground for union organization.

Census results have also awakened Washington to the growing importance of largely Hispanic immigrant minorities. Six million Hispanics voted in the 2000 elections, up from 5 million in 1996. They are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the US.

Without large numbers of Hispanic votes, Bush could face trouble in a number of states he won in 2000, including Florida.

"In a divided electorate, both parties are looking for the allegiance of new voters," says Tim Edgar, legislative council for the ACLU. "Now that Republicans are making overtures to immigrants, Democrats feel the need to shout their support from the rooftops, so they don't ... lose the issue."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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