The fractious politics of immigration

The issue splits both parties, forcing Bush to build an unusual coalition in push for reform plan.

When George W. Bush spoke out for immigration reform early this week, he probably knew he was reaching into a hornet's nest. But by all accounts, this incendiary issue lies near the president's heart - going back to his days as governor of a border state, Texas - and thus it remains a focus of his second term, even as some analysts pronounce his effort moribund.

Political observers also declare his Social Security plan dead, but with immigration there's a key difference: Democratic lawmakers have not linked arms in firm opposition to Mr. Bush's ideas, as they did with Social Security. In fact, if Bush is able to thread the needle with Congress on a plan that achieves both of his goals - enhanced border enforcement plus a temporary-worker program that deals with the millions of illegal immigrants already in the US - it could be his "Nixon in China" moment, analysts say.

That is, as a usually conservative president, Bush is reaching for the center as he addresses a tough issue made even tougher by 9/11. It is an issue that divides both parties, and therein lies the special political challenge Bush faces.

Moreover, it is his own Republican Party that presents the bigger obstacle, at a time when he can ill afford to lose any support from his staunchest backers.

Republicans divide roughly into three camps: a hard-line, antiimmigration camp; a pro- business camp, which welcomes the influx of cheap labor; and a group in the middle that is not sure what to think and could be swayed by a strong, sustained push by the president, says Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert at the Manhattan Institute think tank.

Democrats also have their law-and-order camp, which feels threatened both in the workplace and culturally.

But as a political element, "the fracture is deeper and the stakes higher within the Republican Party, in part because of how virulent the hard-liner strain is, and in part because they're in charge," says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

The hard-line wing of the GOP represents roughly one-quarter of the party, but it is intensely vocal. Its most outspoken member in Congress, Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado, may get more media air time than the speaker of the House.

Mr. Sharry sees the divisions among Democrats over immigration more as fissures than as hard fractures.

On one side, there are "those who see immigrants as minorities who are struggling to live the American dream and are sort of this generation's members of the New Deal coalition. They're our grandparents, they're us," Sharry says.

"The countervailing pressures within Democratic circles come in part from some in labor [unions], who see the competition for workers and the lack of enforcement targeted at employers as leading to exploitation of immigrants and harming wages and working conditions of US workers."

Other pockets of hostility come from some in the African-American community who are suspicious that immigrants are taking away jobs, and from some environmentalists who see population increases due to immigration as adding to the burden on natural resources.

For both parties, immigrants who become citizens - and therefore potential voters - represent a rich trove of support. In particular, the race is on for the votes of Hispanics, now the largest minority in America and one whose political allegiance remains in flux.

But as Bush and his advisers look at the prospects for his reform ideas, they know they face an uphill battle. In the Pew Research Center's report released Nov. 17 on Americans' views on foreign policy, the president scored particularly poorly on immigration policy. Only 24 percent of the public approves versus 54 percent disapproval.

Even Republicans are unhappy, with 36 percent approval and 43 percent disapproval. Among Democrats, the disapproval rating is 72 percent and among independents, 52 percent.

"This dissatisfaction is politically relevant because the general public places a far higher priority on issues of immigration than do opinion leaders," the Pew report says. "Fully 51 percent of Americans say reducing illegal immigration should be a top foreign policy priority for the nation."

On Monday, Bush delivered a speech on immigration reform that sought to recast the debate, focusing more heavily on the enforcement angle than in the past. But he refused to back down on his controversial guest-worker idea. Under his proposal, he would allow foreign workers to enter the country for a limited period, probably three years, to fill jobs that Americans are not willing to do. Opponents of the plan call it an "amnesty," a label Bush rejects.

On the enforcement side, the president touted initiatives such as the program that returns illegal immigrants from Mexico to their hometowns rather than just sending them across the border. He also promised high-tech detection systems to enhance border protection, faster deportation proceedings, and stronger enforcement inside the US.

So far, Congress has been stymied by the issue, and has put off any action until next year.

But in his speech, Bush was adamant about maintaining both sides of his proposal.

"The American people should not have to choose between being a welcoming society and a lawful society," he said Monday at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Ariz. "We can have both at the same time."

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