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They Won’t Touch This Hot Potato

Times Staff Writer

Both President Bush and his Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry, have proposed changes that could lead to the most sweeping overhaul in 20 years of the nation’s immigration policies, but neither has emphasized the often controversial subject in the campaign.

“Immigration is probably the biggest issue the country faces that nobody wants to talk about, and that has certainly been mirrored in this campaign,” said Doris Meissner, who served as the government’s top immigration official from 1993 to 2000.

“Whoever wins is probably going to have to take some real political risks to confront the problems, so they have both been happy to punt for the moment,” she added.

The proposals by Bush and Kerry are generally sympathetic to foreigners who come here willing to work, whether they have entered surreptitiously or landed legally with visas in hand.

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But the plans, placed before voters in position papers and the respective party platforms, differ significantly in their key details.

While both would grant legal status to millions of illegal immigrants already living here, Bush would make them temporary guest workers, expecting that most would eventually return to their native lands. By contrast, Kerry would allow those who are otherwise law-abiding to take the first steps toward becoming U.S. citizens.

Bush’s guest-worker program would allow an unlimited number of foreigners to work here, provided that employers certify that they could not find an American for the job. Kerry would cap the number of guest workers admitted in any year.

Kerry would also make major changes to assist immigrants who are already here legally, including shortening the length of time before they can bring in relatives. In certain cases, immigrants now face waits of a decade or more to reunite their families.

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Both candidates have pledged to crack down on employers who continue to hire undocumented workers, though neither has explained how he would do it.

No president has succeeded in cutting off the hiring of illegal immigrants.

In 1986, President Reagan signed legislation requiring employers to verify that prospective hires were in the United States legally or face sanctions. Since then, employment of undocumented workers in the U.S. has only expanded to more sectors of the economy and to broader geographic areas.

Businesses that want access to a steady supply of labor from Mexico and other lands are excited by the Bush-Kerry face-off.

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“There is so much agreement between the candidates that this is a great situation for the pro-immigration side,” said John Gay, a Washington lobbyist for franchise industries. “Both have strongly stated that the immigration system is broken and needs fundamental fixing.”

But it’s doubtful that a comprehensive immigration law will pass next year. There are higher priorities, among them the war in Iraq and healthcare.

Kerry has promised to introduce a bill in his administration’s first 100 days, but he has not promised to get it passed. Bush unveiled his immigration reform principles in January, but he has not fleshed them out in legislative language.

Meissner noted that significant immigration reform would probably pose a more daunting political challenge for Bush than for Kerry, because dozens of Republican members of the House are opposed to easing immigration restrictions.

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Bush would have to depend on Democrats to carry his bill in the House.

Kerry, even if he cannot deliver a sweeping new immigration law, has promised that he would immediately sign two modest measures with wide bipartisan support in Congress. One is a legalization program for farm workers; the other would allow the children of illegal immigrants to obtain legal U.S. residency and attend college at in-state tuition rates. Bush has been noncommittal about both measures.

Nonetheless, the president seems to speak with conviction when he addresses immigration reform.

“I see it as a human rights issue,” he said during the third presidential debate. “It makes sure people coming across the border are humanely treated, that they’re not kept in the shadows of our society.”

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Latino political activists, many of whom have traditionally supported Democratic candidates, for the most part have backed Kerry’s approach. It tracks the outlines of a Democratic bill, introduced this spring in Congress, that represented a compromise among key party constituencies, including organized labor and Latino civil rights groups. However, major Latino organizations have said they were also willing to work with the Bush White House.

Feeling somewhat shut out of the process are the advocates of a crackdown on illegal immigration and on employers that hire the undocumented.

“The candidates are pandering to a constituency that can’t even vote for them -- the illegal immigrant population,” said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents Border Patrol agents. “We have a hypocritical system where we say it is against the law to hire someone who does not have permission to be here, but that law isn’t enforced.”

Meanwhile, the influx of illegal immigrants across the Mexican border has not abated much, despite efforts by the Bush administration and Congress. For the 2004 fiscal year ending Sept. 30, the Border Patrol reported 1.1 million apprehensions along that border. That compares with 1.2 million apprehensions during the 2001 fiscal year, which ended less than three weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and marked the beginning of a greater emphasis on border security.

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Border Patrol agents say that for every migrant arrested, they believe two or three manage to get across.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Where they stand

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Positions of President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry on key issues in the 2004 presidential race.

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War in Iraq

President Bush: Supported invasion of Iraq because of intelligence indicating Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Wants to keep troops there to stabilize the region.

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Sen. John F. Kerry: Supported initial resolution to invade Iraq but now calls it ‘the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ Pledges to enlist NATO support and, if possible, pull out U.S. troops in four years.

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National Defense

President Bush: Supported creation of Homeland Security Department and passage of U.S. Patriot Act. Wants to pursue a missile shield system.

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Sen. John F. Kerry: Voted for Patriot Act but wants to reform it. Opposes missile shield system, wants to add 40,000 military personnel and expand the Army Special Forces.

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Taxes

President Bush: Says the tax cuts he pushed into law helped pull the country out of recession and buffered the economic effect of the Sept. 11 attacks. Says Kerry would have to raise taxes across the board to pay for all his campaign promises.

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Sen. John F. Kerry: Would roll back Bush’s tax cuts for wealthiest 2% of Americans, or those families making more than $200,000 annually. Has pledged not to raise taxes on middle-class Americans.

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Economy

President Bush: Would provide millions in funding for retraining programs for displaced workers. Encourages use of comp time or flex time rather than overtime pay.

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Sen. John F. Kerry: Proposes tax incentives for businesses that keep jobs in the United States. Wants to cut the budget deficit in half in four years.

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Healthcare

President Bush: Passed a plan for personal health savings accounts. Supports a $145-billion, 10-year plan that offers tax credits to low-income families that buy their own insurance and encourages people to save for health expenses. Wants to cap liability damages.

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Sen. John F. Kerry: Proposes a $650-billion, 10-year plan to provide insurance for more Americans, especially lower-income individuals, by expanding government programs and increasing private insurance subsidies. Government would cover ‘catastrophic’ healthcare costs of more than $50,000.

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Education

President Bush: Signed into law No Child Left Behind Act, instituting annual testing for grades 3 through 8. Supports taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools.

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Sen. John F. Kerry: Voted for No Child Left Behind, but says Bush failed to adequately fund it. Opposes private school vouchers. Favors raising teacher salaries.

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Social Security

President Bush: Favors changing Social Security to allow younger workers to use part of their payroll taxes for private investment nest eggs.

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Sen. John F. Kerry: Opposes allowing individual accounts to be established using Social Security payroll taxes.

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Abortion

President Bush: Opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or when mother’s health is at risk. Signed ban on ‘partial-birth’ abortions.

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Sen. John F. Kerry: Supports a woman’s right to an abortion, but opposes late-term abortions unless the mother’s health is at risk.

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Gay rights

President Bush: Supports a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to male-female couples.

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Sen. John F. Kerry: Opposes constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages. Supports civil unions and benefits for same-sex couples.

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Sources: JohnKerry.com, GeorgeWBush.com, BBC.com. Graphics reporting by Cheryl Brownstein-Santiago


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