A White House task force on immigration will issue a report today urging President Bush to rethink the nation's immigration policy--possibly granting permanent legal status to the more than 3 million undocumented Mexicans living in the United States.
Creation of a sweeping amnesty program is one of several options weighed by the high-ranking panel, which is headed by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, Justice Department officials said Sunday.
Though preliminary, the panel's work raises the likelihood that the Bush administration will embark on the most ambitious overhaul of U.S.-Mexico immigration policy since 1986, when Congress passed a law enabling almost 3 million illegal immigrants--more than half of them from Mexico--to win legal residence status.
Any decision by the White House carries enormous implications for the Mexican workers who live a precarious existence in the United States, as well as the growing number of U.S. industries dependent on their labor.
It also would provoke an intense debate in Congress, which would have to approve any revision in the policy and where there is long-standing opposition among Republicans to loosening immigration laws.
The impact would be pronounced in Southern California, home to about a third of the estimated 8 million illegal immigrants residing in the United States. About half of the undocumented U.S. population is from Mexico.
Mexican President Vicente Fox has pushed for a "regularization" of Mexican migrants as part of a broad effort to improve the status of his country's citizens living in the United States. The Mexican government also is seeking other changes, including a guest worker plan designed to allow more Mexican laborers to enter the country legally as needed.
The White House task force, called the Mexican Migration Working Group, has been studying amnesty plans as well as proposals for changing the nation's temporary worker program, which allows tens of thousands of foreign workers from Mexico and elsewhere to enter the United States for seasonal jobs.
That figure is dwarfed by the estimated 300,000 Mexican migrants who flow into the United States each year illegally, often risking death by traversing dangerous mountain ranges and deserts.
A Justice Department official, who asked not to be identified, said the panel "will send a report to the White House [today] making recommendations that we do address the issue of Mexicans who have been living in the United States" illegally. The details were first reported in Sunday's New York Times.
The official said creating a new amnesty program "has been part of the discussion with Mexico" but stressed that the debate within the White House is "ongoing and no one has coalesced around one particular option."
Bush is preparing for a new round of negotiations on the issue with Fox, who is scheduled to visit Washington in September.
Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas), a leading opponent of creating new amnesty programs, said Sunday that he thinks the White House is unlikely to pursue the issue.
"I'd be surprised if the administration pushed it," said Smith, who until last year was chairman of the House subcommittee on immigration. "I think it would be unpopular with a lot of members of Congress."
Smith and other foes complain that amnesty programs encourage and reward illegal immigration, and threaten the jobs and wages of U.S. citizens.
But the political currents surrounding immigration have shifted in recent years, as many labor unions have become advocates for legalizing undocumented workers and a growing list of U.S. industries--from construction to tourism to meat processing--have become increasingly dependent on the labor of Mexican migrants.
Exemplifying this new lobbying push in Washington is the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, formed two years ago by an array of influential organizations including the American Health Care Assn., the National Assn. of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"Everybody has been clamoring for some kind of legalization program because they can't find sufficient, low-skilled workers to fill jobs," said an aide to one of the leading Democratic senators on immigration policy.
The aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there would likely be broad Democratic support for the changes the White House is contemplating. The possibility also was greeted receptively by some Republicans.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Sunday that he would support a new amnesty program. "These people are living here," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "It's a recognition of reality that they are working here."
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), however, offered a less enthusiastic reaction.
"I think that there are some immigrants that we should have a process where they can have legal residency," he said on "Fox News Sunday." "But just to summarily grant total citizen or legal status to 3 million people, many of whom have gotten here illegally and have violated the law while they're here, I'd want to make sure we do this carefully."
The Clinton administration backed a de facto amnesty last year that would have helped hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants achieve legal status. They would have had to show that they had been living in the United States illegally since 1986. But the plan died amid Republican opposition.
Strongly behind the amnesty concept are Latino and immigrant-advocacy groups that have considerable presence in Washington. Bush has long sought to appeal to the growing Latino vote, which is particularly important in California.
"Bush needs to deal with the issue of the undocumented in a way that stands well with Latinos," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant group in Washington.
The future shape of a proposed amnesty plan remains unclear. Most experts say any proposal would likely be based in part on the number of years prospective applicants have lived in the United States, and possibly, their work histories. The cutoff date for residency here would be a key issue of debate.
Also, while the amnesty question has focused on illegal immigrants from Mexico--who represent perhaps half of the entire undocumented population--amnesty also would presumably aid millions from other nations who are living here illegally.
While most Mexicans here crossed the border illegally, most other illegal immigrants entered with valid visas--such as tourist or visitors' visas--and overstayed them or otherwise violated the terms of their entry.
The Bush administration already has taken steps to ease burdens for illegal immigrants, including extending work permits for hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Hondurans who arrived before a series of natural disasters battered those Central American nations.
The White House also supports extending a lapsed portion of the Immigration and Nationality Act that would allow multitudes of illegal immigrants to apply for permanent residency in the United States without returning to their homelands. Those applying under this provision would have to have pending immigration petitions on their behalf, either from relatives or employers.
The guest worker debate is separate from any possible amnesty, but, depending on what idea emerges, illegal immigrants now in this country could theoretically qualify for new guest worker visas. A major question about the guest worker idea is whether participants could eventually qualify for permanent legal residence.