President Bush vowed Sunday to push a plan that would allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States as guest workers even though it appears less likely to win backing in a Congress that grew more conservative in this month’s elections.
Bush made the commitment during a half-hour meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox in the Chilean capital, where the two leaders are attending the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference. But neither Bush nor his aides could offer any details of where the plan stood on Capitol Hill.
“I told President Fox that I had campaigned on this issue,” Bush told reporters as he sat with Fox in the Hyatt Regency hotel in an upscale Santiago neighborhood with views of the snow-capped Andes mountains.
“I made it very clear, my position that we need to make sure that where there’s a willing worker and a willing employer, that that job ought to be filled legally in cases where Americans will not fill that job,” Bush said.
The encounter brought the two neighbors full circle on the most complex and contentious issue between them. Bush and Fox began their terms within months of each other, promising reforms to ease the flow of migrants across their more than 2,000-mile border. But the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, quickly pushed immigration off a Washington agenda that came to be dominated by security concerns.
On Sunday, Bush conceded a point that Fox and his aides have been making: Legalizing the flow of large numbers of immigrants would free the U.S. Border Patrol to concentrate on terrorists, drug smugglers and other security threats.
“We share a mutual concern to make sure our border is secure,” Bush said. “One way to make sure the border is secure is to have reasonable immigration policies.”
He said he was undeterred by congressional opposition and intended to change minds by “working it.”
“I’m going to find supporters on the Hill and move it,” he told reporters Sunday night, during a news conference with Chilean President Ricardo Lagos at the presidential palace.
Asked about a letter sent to him by nearly two dozen lawmakers claiming the plan amounted to an amnesty program for undocumented workers, Bush said he was unfazed.
“I get letters all the time from people that are trying to steer me one way or the other when it comes to legislation,” the president said. “But I’m going to move forward. In the letter, I noticed that they said, well, this is because ... they’re objecting to the program because it’s an amnesty program. It’s not an amnesty program; it’s a worker program.”
A senior U.S. official, who briefed reporters on condition that his name not be used, said the Bush administration had begun “consultations up on the Hill, and this is going to be part of the president’s legislative agenda for this coming session of the Congress.”
Bush’s plan, not yet written into a bill, would be the first overhaul of immigration rules in 18 years. It would allow three-year work visas for an undetermined number of the millions of illegal immigrants living in the U.S.
Guest workers could then apply for permanent legal status, but their applications would have to include letters from employers stating that the migrants were filling jobs that could not be filled by U.S. citizens.
Bush announced the plan in January, when it appeared that states with heavy Latino populations -- Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona -- would be crucial to his reelection. Campaign strategists hoped that having the president back a moderate immigration policy would boost his support among a fast-growing bloc of voters.
But the plan quickly came under criticism from within Bush’s party. Rather than alienate his conservative Republican base, the president did not pursue the issue in Congress and mentioned it only occasionally during the campaign, mostly to Latino audiences.
Exit polls showed the strategy might have worked -- Bush won 45% of the traditionally Democratic Latino vote, a 7-percentage-point increase over his 2000 figure.
Conservatives and labor union officials oppose Bush’s plan because they believe it will help immigrants take jobs from U.S. workers. Immigrant advocates fear that the plan will give too much power to employers in deciding migrant workers’ fates. And some congressional Republicans also worry that it would encourage more Mexicans to cross the border into the United States.
Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo, a Colorado Republican and one of the leading GOP critics of the Bush plan, said this month that “without first securing our borders from the mass flow of illegal immigration, any guest-worker proposal is totally unworkable.”
Mindful of such opposition, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told Mexican officials this month that progress on immigration issues would depend as much on the new Congress as on the administration.
“We don’t want to over-promise,” Powell said.
Members of Congress who support immigration reform say that no change is possible without strong presidential leadership.
Asked Sunday about the strength of Bush’s commitment, Fox told CNN: “He is willing to lead and conduct ahead with the appropriate political timing. He has the will in trying to work this thing out.”
Fox, who supports legalized status for the estimated 4 million undocumented Mexicans living in the United States, said he hoped to travel to Washington as early as February to “finish off some of these issues we’ve been discussing, perhaps putting them in the shape of some form of agreement.”
The Mexican leader hopes to influence the details of any U.S. legislation to emerge from Bush’s plan. He has said he wants to make sure that it benefits as many Mexican immigrants as possible and does not lead to increased harassment and expulsion of others who live illegally in the United States.
“We are not after amnesty” for illegal immigrants, Fox said. “We don’t think that’s what should be done now. It’s basically to legalize the work that Mexicans are doing in the United States, with dignity, with productivity, and making that economy more competitive.”
Fox has made U.S. immigration reforms his top foreign policy priority.
Despite warm ties after the former Texas governor moved into the White House in 2001, relations between Bush and Fox soured after Mexico refused to support the invasion of Iraq. The two leaders did not discuss Iraq at their meeting here.
Wallsten reported from Santiago and Boudreaux from Mexico City.