Bush tilts to friendlier tone on immigrants

President's rhetoric and policies this week are at odds with many in party.

Wading into an issue of perennial controversy, President Bush urged sweeping changes, and signaled an important tonal shift, this week to make America more welcoming toward immigrants.

His plan - which includes splitting the Immigration and Naturalization Service into two parts (one to defend the border, one to provide faster, more courteous service) - is a calculated political risk. More Hispanics - a key voting bloc - might appreciate him and his party. Yet core Republican conservatives could start rebelling.

But more important, Mr. Bush's efforts to ensure that America is, in his words, "a welcoming society" could have major demographic implications that will affect the country far into the future. The US is already welcoming nearly 1 million immigrants a year - a record - and some are beginning to complain that continued high influx will only exacerbate urban sprawl, environmental degradation, energy shortages, and traffic congestion.

America has long had a "love-hate relationship" with immigrants, says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. "We go through this cycle of loving them during the good times and hating them during the bad times."

Bush's plans include:

* Splitting the INS in two. Proponents argue it would keep the agency from being at cross-purposes with itself - trying to keep immigrants out, yet being a courteous welcomer of new applicants for citizenship. Critics worry the law-enforcement side might overshadow the services side.

* Spending $500 million over five years to help the INS be more "customer" focused, including processing citizenship applications in six months. Current delays can be three to four years.

* He reiterated support for a law that waives a rule that some illegal immigrants return to their home country before applying for residency. Up to 600,000 people could get legal status.

In coming months, Bush also faces a politically tough decision on whether to create a "guest worker" program that puts migrants on the path to citizenship.

In a ceremony on Ellis Island Tuesday, Bush declared, "Immigration is not a problem to be solved. It is a sign of a confident and successful nation."

Bush's proposals come after a decade in which more immigrants arrived in the US than any other time in history - and amid hints of rising anti-immigrant sentiment.

Observers say Bush may be going farther than any recent president since Ronald Reagan in welcoming immigrants. Some disagree with his approach.

"How dense can we get?" asks Dan Stein, head of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a controversial group that advocates dramatic border tightening. "Policies that make sense when you're trying to settle a frontier or form the core of an industrial-revolution work force, don't necessarily make sense in a post-industrial era."

He points to a 1996 Census Bureau report. If immigration continues at a "medium" pace, it says, US population will be nearly 400 million by 2050. "High" immigration could mean 438 million. With "net-zero" immigration - with the number of immigrants balancing those who leave or die - it could be 320 million.

There are inklings of growing public discontent. The percentage of Americans favoring reduced immigration rose slightly - from 38 to 43 percent - between last September and this March, in Gallup polls. In 1993, on the heels of a recession, 65 percent favored a decrease.

But defenders of immigration view skepticism as irrational.

As for the sprawl concerns, "it's not immigrants who are driving SUVs and building McMansions," says Angela Kelley of the National Immigration Forum in Washington. "They're taking the bus and opening businesses." Indeed, three top high-tech firms were started by immigrants - Intel, Sun Microsystems, and Computer Associates.

On a broader level, immigrants give the US "a demographic safety valve," compared to other industrial nations facing long-term worker shortages as their populations age, says Cato Institute scholar Stephen Moore.

And there's evidence that today's immigrants are assimilating as quickly - maybe quicker - than their predecessors: In the early 1900s, about 25 percent of immigrants couldn't speak English. The 1990 US Census found that 8 percent of immigrants said they couldn't speak English.

It's in this environment of skepticism and debate that Bush's planned reforms land.

There is fairly broad consensus on splitting the INS - though supporters differ on details.

The most contentious issue is "guest workers." The administration is debating whether to allow them to eventually become citizens - and hopes to have a decision by the Sept. 5 visit of Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Supporters say "temporary" workers are rarely temporary - often having children and developing roots. Resentments build without the option of citizenship.

But Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, a key immigration conservative, opposes the option because, he says, it rewards people who've broken the law (those who become guest workers often enter illegally), and will be an incentive for illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, the politics of the issue are complicated - and don't break down along party lines. Pro-business Republicans and pro-minority Democrats support immigration. So-called "nativist" conservatives and some labor unions don't.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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