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http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/7458271.htm

Posted on Wed, Dec. 10, 2003

IMMIGRATION

Ridge: Give illegal entrants 'status'

A top Bush administration official suggests at a town hall meeting in Miami that illegal immigrants should be granted limited legal status.

BY MICHAEL VASQUEZ mrvasquez@herald.com

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Tuesday that he believes the vast majority of illegal immigrants in the United States are not a threat to national security and should be given ``some kind of legal status.''

Ridge's comments came during a town hall meeting at Miami Dade College in response to a question from the audience about whether offering amnesty to illegal immigrants might make them easier to track and make the country safer.

While saying any changes in immigration laws would have to be approved by Congress, Ridge said he believed there was growing momentum to change the way the nation dealt with illegal immigrants.

''I'm not saying make them citizens,'' Ridge said. ``They violated our laws to get here. You don't reward that kind of conduct.''

Ridge provided no further explanation about how granting illegal immigrants limited legal status would work and what rights such a status would carry. A telephone call to a spokesperson for Ridge seeking further comment was not returned.

But the remarks by a key member of President Bush's cabinet suggests a shift in tone toward illegal immigrants.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration placed greater emphasis on protecting the nation's borders, enacting measures to thwart terrorists.

Efforts in Washington at reforming immigration policy essentially were put on hold. And immigrant advocates have said they perceive many of the Bush administration's national security measures to be anti-immigrant.

As a result, Ridge's comments caught some immigrant advocates off guard.

''I had no idea the [Bush administration] was seriously considering it,'' said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.

Little said most antiterrorist initiatives adopted by the Bush administration jeopardize national security by making illegal immigrants distrustful of authorities.

Those supporting stricter U.S. immigration policy criticized Ridge's comments. Dan Stein, executive director of the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, said granting illegal immigrants additional rights would encourage more to head for U.S. borders.

''What security objective is accomplished by encouraging further lawbreaking?'' Stein asked. `

Stein said he believed that some illegal immigrants given limited legal status would provide authorities false biographical information.

The issue of granting illegal immigrants certain rights has proven volatile. Former California Gov. Gray Davis, citing post-Sept. 11 security concerns, vetoed a bill last year that would have allowed illegal immigrants to obtain California driver's licenses. A year later, facing a tough recall campaign, Davis signed a bill with fewer security safeguards. Some voters viewed Davis's turnabout as a political ploy to please the Democratic Party's Latino wing and the controversy contributed to Davis' defeat.