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Reframing the debate

As U.S. leaders head to Mexico, security concerns have emerged as a prime argument both for and against making it easier for illegal U.S. residents to gain legal status

By Siobhan Gorman
National Journal, March 2, 2002

Before September 11, the stars were aligning in favor of change in the nation's immigration policies. President Bush was advocating legalization for some illegal immigrants living in the United States, and Democrats and Republicans, as well as labor and business, were warming to the idea. When visiting Washington in early September, Mexican President Vicente Fox called for a joint agreement on U.S.-Mexican immigration policy "before the end of this very year."

But on September 11, movement on immigration policy came to an abrupt halt. "It just went off the agenda after 9/11," said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, the President's point man on Capitol Hill for immigration.

Now, immigration issues are poised to re-emerge, following high-level Administration meetings with Mexico. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge is scheduled to visit Mexico City on March 4 and 5, and Bush is set to meet with Fox in Monterrey, Mexico, on March 22. "Of course, they are going to talk about immigration," one Mexican official commented. "This is the top priority of our government."

The tentativeness with which the Bush Administration is now approaching immigration issues can be seen in its recent actions. At a town hall meeting in January in Ontario, Calif., Bush touted free trade as a way to spur economic development in Mexico and thus reduce the incentives for Mexicans to come to this country illegally to work. He also said that the Immigration and Naturalization Service should process the applications of legal immigrants more quickly and noted: "In the past, at least, there have been people who were trying to hire people, and people willing to work. And it makes sense to me to have a system that matches willing employer with willing employee."

State Department and INS officials continue to meet quietly with their Mexican counterparts, but the Americans are not making any actual decisions about changing immigration policy. And although the White House's Domestic Policy Council had been asked to provide the President with remarks about immigration for his State of the Union address, he chose not to mention the topic.

The Bush Administration's careful approach is understandable, analysts say, because the President is in a tough spot politically. He has to respect public concerns about national security and lax immigration enforcement without appearing to reverse his pro-immigration stance; before September 11, Bush had called Mexico the United States' most important ally. But if he aggressively resumes his pre-September 11 efforts to court Hispanic voters by pushing legalization of Mexicans who have entered this country illegally, he risks alienating the Republican Party's conservative base in a midterm election year. And Bush is undoubtedly mindful that his friend Vicente Fox is depending on an immigration deal with the United States to buoy his own popular support. Plus, Democrats this month plan to roll out a comprehensive immigration proposal, which will put pressure on Bush to respond.

Both supporters and opponents of legalization see national security as their new cause celebre. Proponents such as Cannon and many congressional Democrats offer a host of national security arguments for making it easier for Mexicans to gain legal status as U.S. workers. They say that a crucial step toward making the U.S. homeland more secure is determining who's here. Legalizing the millions of illegal immigrants who are already in this country is the only way to find out their identities, that argument goes. In addition, legalization's proponents say, a large underground population provides an easy cover for would-be terrorists. And if illegal immigrants were legalized, then the INS could focus on apprehending foreigners who want to destroy American society, rather than on deporting Mexicans who simply want to earn a living wage.

On September 6, 2001, Bush called for finding a way to legalize illegal immigrants who are working and paying taxes in the United States. "If somebody is willing to do jobs others in America aren't willing to do, we ought to welcome that person to the country, and we ought to make that a legal part of our economy," Bush said during Fox's visit to Washington. The President also voiced support for a more expansive temporary-worker program that would place foreign workers who are here illegally on the road to attaining a green card but would "not penalize the person who's chosen the legal route."

Critics of legalization counter that tighter borders are crucial for national security. "The problem is that any area [of a border] that an illegal immigrant can cross, a member of Al Qaeda can cross," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which promotes more restrictive immigration policies.

In December, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado warned fellow House Republicans that assigning any new duties to the overworked INS would result in insufficient background checks for foreigners. As a result, a small but politically charged provision that would have allowed foreigners legally in the United States to extend their stays while applying for a different legal status was dropped from the House's border-security bill before the legislation was passed in December. The bill, now awaiting Senate action, would beef up staffing of U.S. border-control agencies, tighten visa controls, and improve data-sharing among border-control agencies. Tancredo says that casting the immigration issue in terms of national security really grabbed the attention of his House colleagues. Outside Washington, groups advocating tighter border controls are running ads that blame the September 11 terrorist attacks on lax immigration policies.

If Bush's attitude toward Mexican immigration has not fundamentally changed since September 10, the most realistic national security argument he could make for legalization, according to Demetrios G. Papademetriou, co-director of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, is purely pragmatic: The United States needs Mexico's help much more now than it did before September 11. "To secure our southern border, we need the active cooperation of the Mexicans," he said. And, he contends, the United States won't get genuine cooperation on border security without giving Mexico an immigration agreement in return.

When homeland security chief Ridge goes to Mexico early next week, he is likely to discover that it will be difficult to reach an agreement on border security unless the Bush Administration is also willing to negotiate on immigration.

Heading South Chris Cannon, first elected to the House in 1996, isn't a typical congressional proponent of immigration legalization. For one thing, he isn't from a border state. The Utah Republican developed an interest in Latin America while serving as a Mormon missionary in Guatemala, and he is fluent in Spanish. Cannon is the most moderate Republican on the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration. Early in Bush's presidency, the lawmaker made clear that he was eager to help push for changes that would make life easier for foreigners who want to work in this country.

But since September 11, Cannon and his pro-immigration allies on Capitol Hill have been in limbo, and they see the Ridge and Bush trips to Mexico as opportunities to regain some momentum. "I'm hoping for some direction," Cannon said. "If [Bush] takes a position of wanting to move things forward, that will resonate heavily in Congress."

Ridge's meeting with Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda in Mexico City will almost certainly focus more on security than on immigration. Sources familiar with the planning say that Ridge will push a less aggressive version of the "Smart Borders" agreement that he brokered with Canada in December.

That 30-point pact aims to merge many of the enforcement functions on the northern border. It includes information-sharing on potential terrorists and on the identity of passengers aboard U.S.-bound Canadian flights; joint policies on refugees and asylum seekers; compatible lists of countries whose citizens may enter without visas; and border-crossing systems that allow low-risk travelers and cargo to come and go more quickly.

Ridge's Mexican border proposal will probably contain about half as many points, likely focusing on establishing a joint database of suspected terrorists and criminals for use by border-control agents and other law enforcement officials; winning more cooperation from Mexico on extradition proceedings; and conducting joint training for U.S. and Mexican border officials. Ridge's proposal, sources say, will also seek more cooperation from Mexico on stopping illegal drug trafficking and arresting drug kingpins.

If discussion of legalizing illegal Mexican immigrants comes up in Ridge's meeting, it will probably be in terms of national security. The Mexican Embassy drew up a 25-point fact sheet listing the ways in which Mexico is working with the United States on security, including steps to tighten border controls, share intelligence, and investigate foreigners' bank accounts. The list also cited the newspaper ads Mexico ran in support of the United States after September 11.

Critics say Mexico can't be trusted to keep its agreements, because of its corrupt law enforcement officials and its anemic judiciary. But Peter Andreas, author of Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide, argues that Mexico might do better at cooperating on terrorism than on drug trafficking. "There's not a lot of political resistance domestically to rounding up people of Middle Eastern origin," he said. "In fact, Mexico can use the anti-terror issue as a way to display its cooperation with the U.S."

Bush will be in Mexico to attend the U.N.-sponsored International Conference on Financing for Development. The meeting will focus on economic-development issues affecting border towns. Bush is likely to talk about the need for the United States to promote local development in Mexico to stem the flow of Mexicans into this country-an approach that is consistent with the few statements he has made about immigration since the terrorist attacks. But Fox, who invited Bush to the meeting in Monterrey, can't afford to let Bush leave Mexico without directly discussing immigration policy.

"The Mexicans will try to push the envelope on immigration. And the Americans will try to demur as much as they can," predicts Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

Bush's Bind Bush will try to demur in part because he's juggling his own political calculations for 2002 and 2004. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, Bush has much less to gain politically from aggressively pursuing a new immigration policy.

Before September 11, Bush was looking both for a way to help his party win more Hispanic votes and to burnish his foreign-policy credentials. Fox was clearly eager to work with Bush on reaching a bilateral agreement on legalization and a new temporary-worker policy. But Bush's job-approval rating among Hispanic voters skyrocketed after the terrorist attacks and now hovers around 70 percent. Meanwhile, public support for legalization has waned. In August, 62 percent of Americans favored legalizing some taxpaying illegal immigrants; recently, 59 percent said even legal immigration should be decreased.

For the 2002 elections, the White House has to weigh the risks of offending its conservative base, which tends to favor immigration restrictions, against the risk of losing Hispanic support. "With an election, recession, and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, now is not the time for this [push for legalization]," said one GOP congressional aide. "If a sufficient number of Republican voters stay home, it could have negative repercussions for control of Congress. Members are thinking about this year's elections, not 2004, right now," he added.

On the other hand, keeping silent until next year could have significant consequences for those Republicans who are trying to court Hispanic voters in their races this year. The Democratic National Committee is already accusing Bush of only paying lip service to immigration. And although Democrats are under no illusions that they'll be able to pass an immigration bill this year, they plan to roll out a comprehensive proposal later this month to stake out their party's position.

Putting a concrete proposal on the table could have political benefits for Democrats, especially if they can use it to effectively couple immigration and national security interests. "I know we in Congress are going to [address immigration], and the President will have to decide how we move ahead in homeland security without addressing this issue," said Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "I do not see how we can protect the homeland if we don't know who's here."

Complicating the politics is the issue of Fox's standing in Mexico. "What if [Fox] loses his shirt [in the next elections]? Can the Americans negotiate with a president who doesn't have a mandate? Could he be a reliable partner if he's mortally wounded in the local elections?" Papademetriou asks. "If we don't empower Mr. Fox to negotiate and deliver on a bargain, then that opportunity may not exist six or eight months from now."

And looking ahead toward 2004, a major national debate on immigration policy seems likely if the U.S. economy improves and terrorists don't strike again. By next year, Americans will have enough distance from September 11 to be ready for bigger changes in immigration policy, predicts Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum.

An Immigration Bargain? Since September 11, Cannon has periodically tested the waters in Congress to gauge whether members are ready to take up the immigration debate. "I've tried to raise it recently to a little bit higher level, at least internally," he said. Cannon and his pro-immigration compatriots acknowledge that Congress has to finish work on the border-security bill that has passed the House and is awaiting Senate action before it can address immigration.

Cannon says he'd like to push an immigration proposal that includes both legalization and an expansion of guest-worker programs. Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, want to increase the number of immigration visas for Mexico and Canada, and they will push for stronger safeguards for due-process rights for foreigners. Mexico's priorities include expansion of visas as well as social and economic development projects.

But little real progress is expected toward legalization this year. And while immigration advocates understand the delays, they are getting restless. "If [the President and his Administration] are really committed, they're going to have to put some political capital behind it," said Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "There needs to be some commitment and maybe some down payment, where the White House actually pushes Congress to enact some modest reforms."

Eliseo Medina, the executive vice president for the Service Employees International Union, counters that it is better to be patient than to risk losing because there isn't yet sufficient support for legalization. "At the appropriate time, I expect we're going to hear [Bush's] voice speak out on this issue," Medina said. "It's just a matter of time."

Analysts say the health of the U.S. economy will also partially determine the pace of action. Congress will feel little pressure to act until the economy picks up and increases the demand for low-wage foreign labor. Business and labor interests are still voicing strong support for change, however. "This is a blip. We expect that the economy is going to recover," said Theresa Brown, who manages immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We're still creating jobs faster than the workforce is growing."

When Congress does eventually tackle legalization, it will have to address the question of how to allow illegal workers to stay in this country without creating a new incentive for would-be immigrants to ignore legal immigration channels. A guest-worker program would be the best approach, many observers say. Such a program would allow Mexican citizens whose documentation has been verified, perhaps by Mexico, to come to the United States to work on a temporary basis in areas where there is a labor shortage.

Cannon said such a program might be more politically palatable if it required each guest worker to carry an identification card with some sort of biometric identifier, such as a fingerprint. Whether and how soon the guest workers could apply for citizenship would probably be a major point of contention.

Actual legalization raises more questions. The idea is that taxpaying illegal immigrants who have shown a commitment to the United States should be allowed to become legal residents. But would the program be restricted to illegal immigrants from Mexico, estimated at 3.5 million people, or open to all of the 8 million or 9 million illegal U.S. residents? Democrats feel strongly that the program should be open to all taxpaying undocumented workers, but Bush has indicated he wants to start with a bilateral agreement with Mexico.

What would Mexico give the United States in return? Most of what Mexico can offer is in the security arena: cooperating fully with intelligence-sharing; cracking down on illegal migration to the United States; doing a better job of checking foreigners as they enter Mexico; and aligning its border-enforcement policies with those of the United States.

Another major issue, Cannon said, will be Mexico's policy of permitting dual citizenship. "You need to be clear about where your loyalties are," he said.

With so many variables, the future of immigration policy is impossible to predict. "Serendipity will play the largest role," Papademetriou said. "It was serendipity that put this item on the agenda last year. Serendipity intervened again on 9/11. We need something to really shake up the negotiations, for this to get back on the front burner." With just a few words, President Bush can return immigration to the forefront of the national agenda-if he chooses to do so.