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Immigration Rising on Bush’s To-Do List

Times Staff Writers

Worried that the tone of the immigration debate is pushing Latinos away from the Republican Party, the White House is working with political strategists to create a broad coalition of business groups and immigrant advocates to back a plan President Bush could promote in Congress and to minority voters in the 2006 elections.

The strategists say Bush is planning to make immigration a top priority as soon as this fall, once the focus on a Supreme Court vacancy has passed. The push is being planned to coincide with next year’s campaigns for the House and Senate, in which Latino voters could be crucial in several states. It is part of a broader White House strategy to forge a long-lasting majority by drawing more minority voters.

Aiming for an air of bipartisanship, the White House-backed coalition, to be called Americans for Border and Economic Security, will be led by former U.S. Reps. Cal Dooley (D-Hanford) and Dick Armey (R-Texas). The chief organizer is one of the capital’s most important White House allies: former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who has hosted preliminary meetings at his Washington lobbying firm just blocks from the White House and has been advising the RNC on minority outreach.

The effort is designed to help Bush take control of an increasingly contentious debate that has threatened to split the Republican Party and undermine its outreach to Latino voters. Although the White House has not laid out details for a plan, in January 2004 Bush proposed a guest-worker program that would be open to many illegal immigrants already in the U.S. and to prospective workers abroad.

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A guest-worker program is favored by many Latinos and by businesses, many of them major GOP donors that depend on a steady flow of workers from Mexico and other countries. The White House effort is aimed at satisfying these groups while promoting tougher border security enforcement. The latter focus is an attempt to mollify a vocal bloc of cultural conservatives in the GOP -- some in the House leadership -- who argue that undocumented workers present a security threat and take some jobs that could be filled by Americans.

Some Republican strategists worry that the more extreme voices in this camp are alienating Latino voters with anti-immigrant language, and one goal of the new coalition is to marginalize those voices. Organizers said the coalition could help the GOP avoid the kind of political damage caused in the early 1990s by the anti-immigration campaign in California backed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson.

The issue has presented a quandary for Bush, who backed off his earlier calls for immigration changes after conservatives rebelled. Now, the White House hopes to reinvigorate the drive for new immigration laws -- but this time it wants to work in advance to ensure that the president is backed by a broad alliance of business and advocacy groups.

There are signs, however, that the administration effort is running into problems even as it begins: Several key business groups are hesitant to join the new coalition, questioning whether the administration can separate itself from the anti-immigration wing of the GOP that is promoting restrictive policies. And the party’s leading voices favoring stricter limits on immigration, such as Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), remain undaunted -- pledging to intensify their efforts.

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Coalition organizers say that makes their work all the more timely.

“The politics of the Republican Party isn’t going to change by itself. It needs help,” said Terry Holt, a spokesman for Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, who works with Gillespie and is recruiting members for the new coalition. “Immigration needs advocates. And if those advocates engage, they can have a profound impact on the issue.”

Referring to the Latino vote, which turned out in larger numbers last year for Bush than in his 2000 campaign, Holt added: “There are great opportunities for Republicans, and also dangers if we don’t handle this properly.”

Holt and Armey, who as House majority leader from 1995 to 2002 unsuccessfully challenged some of his fellow conservatives to soften their opposition to immigration, said the new group’s message would seek to isolate players such as Tancredo, who leads a House caucus that backs stiff border restrictions.

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Tancredo succeeded in dominating the debate, Holt and Armey said, because of an echo chamber of conservative talk radio and other advocates for limiting the influx of Mexicans across the border.

“There’s two voices right now, and the noisy one is what I call the slam-the-borders crowd,” Armey said. “The voice we want to speak with -- and the one that will be in unison with President Bush -- is the voice that echoes those marvelous words on the Statue of Liberty.”

“To me, the Tancredo wing appeals to the more prurient character of our nature,” Armey added. “We want to talk to the better angels of our nature.”

Organizers say the new coalition is patterned after groups formed to press for Bush’s overhaul of Social Security and his successful 2003 push for a Medicare prescription drug program -- a new aspect of Republican strategy in which corporations and other interest groups are tapped to help move public opinion in favor of a policy initiative.

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Corporations and advocacy groups with a direct interest in immigration -- including those who need skilled high-tech workers, farm laborers and university teaching assistants -- are being aggressively targeted for membership. Those being courted include Microsoft Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and groups representing academic institutions, restaurants, hotels, landscaping firms, hospitals and nurses.

Organizers say this is the first time an effort has been made to bring these disparate groups together to focus on immigration issues.

Admission into the new coalition costs between $50,000 and $250,000. The proceeds are expected to pay for a political-style campaign for an approach to immigration that combines heightened border security with a guest-worker program of some sort, creating an environment that the White House believes will be more favorable for Bush to step back into the fray.

Tancredo accused the administration of forging an alliance with business executives who view migrants as a path to greater profits.

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“They know this has nothing to do with Hispanic votes,” he said. “They’re trying to cover what their real motive is, which is to supply [business] with cheap labor, to not close the spigot of cheap labor.... But they’ve lost in Congress. They’ve lost the public. And now they’re in damage control.”

Tancredo asserted that Bush was in a bad spot politically, caught between public opinion favoring restrictive immigration policies and corporate interests that want looser policies. He said the apparent plans being laid by the new coalition seem to contrast with the message Bush gave to House leaders during a recent White House meeting: that the borders must be secured.

“I think he is trying to figure out a way to triangulate here,” Tancredo said.

Further complicating matters for the White House is a business community that has shown some resistance to entreaties from Holt and Gillespie, wary both of the price tag for joining the coalition and of aligning itself with a White House that tends to accede to the demands of its base.

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Several business groups being courted by the new coalition expressed disappointment at newly unveiled legislation from Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) that would create a strictly enforced guest-worker program that would require illegal immigrants to leave the country before applying for the chance to work legally. The White House has not endorsed the measure, but business lobbyists fear that it reflects the president’s approach.

Another measure, sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), would set looser restrictions and allow undocumented workers to apply for guest-worker status without going home first. The White House has not given its opinion of this proposal either.

There are about 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, according to several estimates.

Several other coalitions already exist, with different groups representing high-tech companies and service industries. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has helped organize the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, which has applauded the McCain-Kennedy approach. Members of that coalition said they were hesitant to join the White House-backed effort.

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“There’s anxiety, because does [the Cornyn-Kyl bill] represent the White House thinking?” asked John Gay, a lobbyist for the International Franchise Assn. and a co-chairman of the Essential Worker group. “Everyone in this debate is waiting to see what the next step of the White House is going to be.”

Some who have attended the preliminary meetings of the new coalition said it was unclear whether the group’s organizers would advocate for the prospective membership or for the eventual White House position, should they differ.

Some business leaders cautioned that the White House risked repeating some of the strategic errors that had hampered Bush’s campaign to remake Social Security, namely, pushing a concept without a clear legislative endgame. Without that, corporate leaders will hesitate to join, they said.

“We just don’t seem to be there yet, because we don’t know what the proposal is,” Gay said.

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Craig Regelbrugge, a lobbyist for the American Nursery & Landscape Assn., one of the groups being courted by the new coalition, said Bush would succeed in forging partnerships with business only once he felt comfortable angering some parts of his base.

“You’re never going to please them all,” Regelbrugge said, who like Gay has attended preliminary meetings of the coalition. “That’s the difficult thing for the White House on this. They don’t want to anger anyone. But the party’s going to have to choose between the closed-minded restrictionists and the business base.... Who’s really the base of the base? Farmers and businesspeople, or the others?”

Organizers say the coalition will aim to create the right atmosphere for Bush to forge a middle ground.

Former congressman Dooley, a Democrat whose California district included large numbers of Latino workers, said he believed the effort was not about politics. Rather, he said he was interested in a genuine fix that would help immigrants and their families.

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He said that if he sensed the coalition was moving toward the anti-immigrant forces, he would not go along. “If it got to the point that there’s not a balanced approach to this, I can guarantee you I won’t be a part of this coalition and I will resign,” he said. “I’m approaching this as a political pragmatist.”


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