The White House backed away Monday from the notion of an "automatic" amnesty for the more than 3 million undocumented Mexicans in the United States but acknowledged that it will consider ways to "regularize" their status to address a festering issue with Mexico.
Reacting to conservatives' protests about a proposal being weighed by a top-level administration task force, White House officials abruptly delayed the group's report and sought to play down concerns about what could be the biggest change in immigration policy in 15 years.
Still, the administration suggested that it may be willing to allow the undocumented workers to stay through a multi-staged process that could confer "legal status" upon them, thus opening the possibility of eventual citizenship.
The task force, headed by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, might recommend the creation of "a new temporary guest worker program," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said.
As a part of that, he added, the working group is focusing on "whether or not there is anything that can be done to regularize [the undocumented workers'] immigration status and to provide them either some type of temporary or . . . other type of status that would welcome them into the United States."
The administration's carefully parsed language reflects the balancing act involved in finding a compassionate middle ground on an issue with enormous human, political and diplomatic dimensions.
Bush is eager to boost his support among Latino voters but wary of enraging his conservative base, which is concerned about the continued flow of undocumented workers across the border despite recent crackdowns.
The task force's emerging recommendation on undocumented workers was reported over the weekend, and on Monday it was quickly denounced by influential conservatives.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) declared that "a mass amnesty is probably not the way to go." Commentator Pat Buchanan warned on CNN that such a program would "unleash a massive immigration flood across our Southwest border."
By late afternoon, the White House issued a curt announcement saying that the task force will deliver "a progress report later this week," pointing out that "no decisions have been made."
The group's recommendations, possibly in the form of talking points, were to have been sent to the White House on Monday.
In his daily news briefing, Fleischer stressed that many details remain to be worked out and that any specific presidential decisions were a long way off.
Whatever the outcome, the spokesman pledged that Bush would consult with Congress and work with Mexican President Vicente Fox to make the U.S.-Mexican border "more orderly, more human and to have more safe and legal immigration into this country."
Also on Monday, Fox called on the U.S. to offer broad amnesty to illegal workers as he wrapped up his two-day visit to Chicago, Associated Press reported.
Fox asked Bush to offer "as many rights as possible for as many Mexican immigrants as possible as soon as possible" during a speech to a meeting of the Economic Club of Chicago.
At his daily briefing, Fleischer repeatedly deflected questions over the nuances of immigration policy, urging reporters to wait for the task force's recommendations.
Asked if "regularize" didn't imply a permanent rather than a temporary status, Fleischer responded:
"It totally depends on how they do it. It can be done temporarily, it can be done on a longer period of time, it can be done in a manner that one event can lead to another event in the immigration stream of events down the road."
Moments later, the spokesman added: " . . . If you [have] legal status, then under the laws of the United States, well of course you're perfectly within your rights then to apply for citizenship just like everybody else who has become a citizen of this country."
Fleischer also pointed out that "amnesty is an automatic granting, as opposed to a formalized process that everybody who comes to the United States in accordance with the laws has to go through. It's a very lengthy process. And it's very different."
Asked how Bush intended to deal with any anti-immigration backlash, Fleischer replied: "Proudly."
He added: "The president believes that we're a nation of immigrants. The president . . . at Ellis Island said that immigration is not a problem to be solved, it's an opportunity for all Americans and for our country."
The White House's response illustrated the difficult and controversial nature of two immigration concepts: amnesty and guest workers.
Both Bush and Fox are known to favor some kind of guest-worker program, which would allow Mexican workers to enter the country legally as needed, thus eliminating the dangers associated with illicit border crossings and restoring some regulation to U.S.-Mexico immigration.
But if a new guest-worker program is implemented, how will it affect the more than 3 million illegal immigrants from Mexico already in the U.S.?
"How do you have a legitimate guest worker program without taking into account that there are already so many people here without legal status?" asked one Justice Department official, who declined to be identified.
One possibility is to allow illegal immigrants to apply for the program. But that raises the question of how people already in the country, who have broken the law to come here, could be considered guest workers? And what kind of guarantee would there be that these workers will return to their homelands?
Another dilemma with the guest-worker idea is whether to grant participants permanent legal-residence status--and the coveted "green card."
Activists favoring reduced immigration say this would be a mistake, a de facto amnesty for people who may have come here illegally.
But pro-immigrant groups insist that eventual legal status is mandatory for the creation of a fair guest-worker plan.
The mere mention of a possible amnesty reverberated in immigrant communities across the nation Monday, especially in Southern California, home to the nation's largest illegal immigrant population.
Spanish-language radio and television stations repeated the news over and over in Los Angeles, and word of a potential amnesty was cited as a glimmer of hope for some.
Meanwhile, groups seeking to reduce immigration reacted with alarm. One Southern California-based Web site opposed to large-scale amnesty called on opponents to telephone or fax their opposition to the White House.
Chen reported from Washington and McDonnell from Los Angeles.