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Latinos Are Watching GOP Vote on Immigration Law

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

After staving off action all year on an issue vital to many Latino groups, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill face a politically delicate decision as Congress draws to a close: whether to allow a significant easing of immigration law or continue to block the change.

Either choice poses risks for a party anxious to avoid a replay of the divisive immigration battles of the 1990s that hurt the GOP’s standing among many Latinos.

At issue are proposals to grant amnesty to hundreds of thousands of longtime residents who entered the United States illegally, whether to expand the immigration process for certain Central Americans and whether to help many applicants seeking green cards.

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Passing the legislation would offend a large number of Republicans who favor strict immigration policies. But rejecting them could alienate Latino voters as the Nov. 7 election nears. It would also disappoint some business groups--for example, restaurant and hotel owners--which say they need the reforms to keep many of their workers on the job.

With Congress racing to adjourn as early as Friday, pro- and anti-immigration activists are increasing pressure on the issue. Also watching closely are Spanish-language media, which have intensely covered the debate.

Democrats appear united behind the immigration package, endorsed by President Clinton and the party’s presidential nominee, Vice President Al Gore.

Bush Has Held Off Endorsing Proposals

But fissures are clear among Republicans. While many GOP lawmakers oppose any changes in immigration law, a few seem open to compromise. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) supports the measures, as does 1996 GOP vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, frequently aligned with congressional Republicans, has expressed “general support.”

And George W. Bush? A spokesman for the Republican presidential nominee said this week that Bush “has not endorsed” the immigration package and does not support “blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants.”

But the Bush spokesman, Ray Sullivan, stopped short of saying that the Texas governor opposes the pending legislation. Sullivan said Bush supports a proposal to split the Immigration and Naturalization Service into two agencies to reduce a backlog of immigration applications and additional spending of $500 million over five years to improve services for legal immigrants.

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It is hard to say whether those positions will satisfy Latinos who are looking for the Bush campaign to substantiate its claim that he is “a different kind of Republican,” in contrast to party members in the mid-1990s who sought to capitalize politically on their opposition to illegal immigration.

Legislation Proposes Significant Changes

The legislation, which backers call the Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act, would make three significant changes in immigration law.

First, an estimated 500,000 or more people who came to the United States illegally before 1986 would be eligible for permanent residency, moving up a cutoff date now fixed at 1972.

Second, many thousands of foreign nationals from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Haiti who left those countries during civil unrest in the 1980s and early ‘90s would be granted the same right already given Nicaraguans and Cubans to establish legal residency.

And third, certain illegal immigrants who are in line for visas would be able to apply from within the United States instead of being forced to return to their native countries. That would enable many to stay with their U.S. families and keep their jobs.

A large number of those potentially affected by the three proposals live in Southern California.

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Spanish-language news outlets, including TV networks Univision and Telemundo, have covered the legislation far more intensively than mainstream media, which largely have ignored immigration in an election year dominated by other topics.

“The Latino community is showing a very big interest in this story,” said Lori Montenegro, a Washington correspondent for Telemundo. “There are a lot of legal residents--and more importantly, a lot of U.S. citizens--who are immigrants but have family members who have certain situations that could benefit.”

A key proponent is Henry G. Cisneros, the former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary who recently stepped down from the helm of Univision. Cisneros, now an urban housing developer based in Texas, said he took up the cause at the urging of activists in Southern California and elsewhere.

“These are people who are paying taxes--Social Security taxes, sales taxes,” Cisneros said. “They are building communities. They have families. They have a life here.”

The immigration package drew notice earlier this year when Democrats sought to link it to a measure expanding the annual quota of visas enabling high-tech companies to import skilled foreign workers. Republicans argued that the so-called H-1B visas were a separate issue. Ultimately, the H-1B legislation passed the House and Senate overwhelmingly--clearing the way for nearly 200,000 foreigners a year to enter the United States on the temporary visas, mostly from such countries as India, China and the Philippines.

Now, Democrats say, Latino immigrants should get their turn. More than 150 Democrats in the House and 43 in the Senate have signed a pledge to support passage of the pending immigration package in year-end budget negotiations between Congress and President Clinton. Late last week, White House negotiator Jack Lew reiterated that the immigration package is an administration priority.

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But some key Republicans have warned that defeating the package is their priority. “Amnesty is bad policy,” said Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration. “It rewards lawbreakers, is unfair to law-abiding legal immigrants, makes a mockery of our laws and encourages new waves of illegal immigration.”

One who seeks a middle ground is Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. While he derided the Democratic-sponsored package as “poorly written” and “a political measure,” Hatch told reporters that he would like to “solve those problems where there are inequities and injustices.”

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