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Congress May Reject Immigration Reforms

Times Staff Writers

Since President Bush’s victory, President Vicente Fox of Mexico and his Cabinet ministers have expressed the hope that reform of U.S. immigration policy -- promised by Bush at the start of his first term but shoved into the background by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- will again take center stage.

But experts say that any optimism may be misplaced because of Republican gains in the House and Senate.

“The White House might be tempted to make a renewed push” for immigration reform, said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research group that promotes curbs on immigration. “But if they do, they are not going to get anywhere because Congress appears to have moved in the restrictionist direction.”

Fox made it clear Wednesday in his congratulatory letter to the president that a new immigration package is at the top of Mexico’s agenda. He reiterated Mexico’s desire for reform during a conference Friday in Rio de Janeiro.

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“The climate favors advancing toward an integral migratory agreement that will permit migration flows and respect the human and worker rights of Mexicans,” Fox said. Mexico wants guest-worker permits and amnesty for some, if not all, of the 5 million undocumented Mexicans who are believed to be living in the United States.

Bush has promised to discuss the issue, but reform proponents were disappointed that the president did not mention immigration during Thursday’s news conference, when he outlined his agenda for a second term. The White House later said he intended to seek passage of the plan he unveiled in January, which would create a new class of guest workers while offering limited amnesty to undocumented immigrants.

The proposal included an unlimited number of three-year work visas for migrants, who could apply in the United States or Mexico. It also would give guest workers the right to then apply for permanent legal status, also while remaining in the United States, which critics viewed as a disguised amnesty provision.

To get the work permits, applicants would have to show letters from employers saying that the jobs were guaranteed and could not be filled by U.S. citizens.

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Congress’ frosty response forced Bush to shelve his proposal until after the election, said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego. If anything, the selling job will be even tougher now, he said.

“The Bush proposal would represent a significant increase in permanent legal immigration, which is an idea that most members of Congress resist,” Cornelius said. Most oppose anything resembling a repeat of the 1980s amnesty programs that legalized the status of about 2.3 million Mexican immigrants.

“I don’t see anything in the Washington landscape that would indicate conditions are better than they were two or three years ago,” said Gabriel Guerra Castellanos, a former diplomat and presidential spokesman and now a public affairs consultant. “We’re looking at status quo, basically.”

If Bush’s proposal stalls again in Congress, a fallback option might be the so-called AgJobs bill, which would make an estimated 500,000 undocumented farmworkers eligible for legal status.

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The legislation attracted 62 cosponsors in the Senate this year, almost evenly split between the parties and a margin sufficient to withstand a filibuster. Republican Sen. Larry Craig, an Idaho conservative, is preparing to reintroduce it in 2005. He was coauthor of the measure with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). The Bush administration opposed the bill, however.

Magdelena Corral, commissioner of the National Immigration Institute in Mexico City, said Mexico’s position is that a U.S. reform bill should give “legal status” to all Mexicans living illegally in the U.S. “so they aren’t in the shadows.”

But economist Francisco Alba, an expert on immigration at the Colegio de Mexico here, believes that Mexico should have more modest expectations and take what it can get. “It won’t be a question of whether we accept it or not, but whether the United States takes the decision,” he said.

Cornelius of UC San Diego said Bush is most likely to make an immigration bill palatable to Congress by eliminating the amnesty provisions and making it impossible for a temporary visa holder to convert to permanent residency without leaving the country to apply.

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Immigration reformers on both sides of the border say that Bush, as a former Texas governor who sought to elevate the importance of the U.S.-Mexico relationship, wants change to be part of his legacy.

“With this victory, Bush doesn’t have a corner to hide in or excuses to make,” said Rafael Fernandez de Castro, a professor and editor of the Spanish-language edition of Foreign Affairs magazine. “He really has to keep his word to deliver a migration reform package.”

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Kraul reported from Mexico City and Alonso-Zaldivar from Washington.

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