Bush, Rove Press Congress on Illegal-Worker Proposal

Times Staff Writer

White House political strategist Karl Rove is offering lawmakers new details of an administration-backed guest worker program that would temporarily legalize the status of millions of illegal workers, according to Republicans who have attended the meetings.

The White House effort is seen as its latest step toward reasserting President Bush’s leadership on one of the most divisive issues confronting the Republican Party.

Concerned that increasingly strident anti-immigrant voices within the party were undermining the administration’s efforts to reach out to Latino voters, the administration formed a coalition of business groups and immigration advocates during the summer to lobby for the sort of comprehensive plan Bush has advocated since early in his presidency.

Some lawmakers see the recent White House sessions as evidence that Bush intends to pursue his plan as soon as this fall -- despite the strains Hurricane Katrina has put on the legislative agenda and despite ongoing opposition within his party.


“There is a level of detail that was not there before that is very important,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who has put forward his own guest worker bill. “All of us see a heightened engagement on this issue by the administration, which is good.”

In January 2004, Bush said he wanted to allow illegal workers to apply for a three-year work visa, with the possibility of a single three-year extension before having to return to their native country. But Bush’s proposal has never been translated into legislation, nor has he supported any immigration-related bill pending in Congress.

At recent presentations led by Rove, administration officials have told groups of lawmakers that under Bush’s plan, any worker who is here illegally would first have to pay a substantial fine before being granted a temporary work visa. The fine is seen as a gesture to critics who have said any such legalization amounts to granting workers amnesty for breaking the law.

Administration officials have told lawmakers that workers who participate in the program and then return to their native countries would be allowed to reapply for a guest worker visa after a year.

Issa, who attended one of the meetings this week, said he was convinced Bush intended to push immigration legislation soon, and to do so by building a bipartisan coalition in favor of his plan.

White House spokeswoman Erin Healy confirmed Thursday that the meetings had occurred and would continue, but declined to say whether they were the prelude to a White House effort to move immigration legislation this fall.

“It is a dialogue to discuss realistic, comprehensive immigration reform,” Healy said. “We are in the consultation phase.”

The Bush plan is sure to meet resistance from some Republicans in the House, where a strong caucus that believes a guest worker plan would only attract more illegal immigrants includes about a third of the chamber’s GOP majority.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who opposes a guest worker program, said after he attended a White House meeting this week he believed the administration could be persuaded that the only realistic approach to immigration reform was one restricted to tougher law enforcement and border security.

“Between either one or two hurricanes, the budget ... there are time constraints” on what Congress can accomplish, Smith said.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said he preferred to move incrementally, starting with a crackdown on illegal immigration. “People don’t believe that we are serious about securing the border, nor are we serious about enforcing the law,” DeLay said. “It probably makes more sense to do a border security bill and a law enforcement bill before we get into a guest worker discussion.”

Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that advocates strict immigration policies, dismissed the White House effort as an attempt by a second-term administration to show it could pursue broad policy reform.

“This is a last-gasp, last-ditch effort,” Stein said.

Some advocates of immigration overhaul say they are encouraged by the tone of the meetings and the detail being provided. But they note that the proposal offers no path toward citizenship for illegal workers who would participate in a temporary visa program. Democrats and some Republicans say such an offer would be necessary to entice illegal workers to come forward.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village), a key House Democrat on immigration issues, said he could not support the administration’s plan because it would provide no hope that illegal workers could eventually earn citizenship or permanent residency.

“People who have roots here -- families -- won’t come out from the underground” without that hope, said Berman, who attended a White House session Wednesday. But he said he believed the gap between the Bush administration and many Democrats -- himself included -- could be bridged. “The most positive thing to me is they seem deeply committed to a comprehensive approach.”

Days before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush met with Mexican President Vicente Fox and pledged that immigration reform would be an administration priority.

But the issue was pushed far down the agenda by the attacks and the subsequent war on terrorism.

Bush returned to the issue in his 2004 speech, but backed away from it during his reelection bid after his guest worker program provoked an outcry from anti-immigrant forces within the Republican Party.

Lawmakers say that at the White House meetings, Rove and other officials have emphasized that the administration package would include measures to tighten border security and more strictly enforce immigration laws in workplaces.

Democrats and Republicans, and supporters and opponents of a guest worker program, have attended the presentations.

Rove emphasized that the administration was open to suggestions on how to alter its plan to gain the broadest possible support, according to some who attended.

“He said, ‘There are some things that we’re really hard on, some that we care about and some that are granular -- details,’ ” said Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah), who advocates immigration reform that includes limited legalization for illegal workers.

According to Cannon, Rove said Bush would insist that any immigration plan take a comprehensive approach and that workers who came to the country illegally face some sort of punishment, such as the fines the administration proposes.

The White House began holding the sessions with lawmakers in July. The early meetings focused on the law enforcement and border security elements of the House plan. But of late the emphasis has shifted, with more details being offered on the most politically sensitive part of the package -- the guest worker program.

“It was useful and helpful to know that they’ve moved this far ahead in their specific proposal,” said Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), who attended a session last week.

Kolbe, who has introduced a bill that includes a plan for workers and offering them a path toward citizenship, said that if the administration hoped to get legislation moved this fall, “they have got to turn up the heat.... The president has got to work on building up support for this.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who expressed skepticism about Bush’s proposals in 2004, has not been invited to the White House sessions, said David Sandretti, Boxer’s press secretary. Boxer has advocated a plan that would provide immigrants with “a clear and meaningful path to earning citizenship,” he said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) attended one of the White House meetings, said her spokesman, Howard Gantman. Feinstein “has not been supportive of the president’s proposal” to create a guest worker program, Gantman said, “because she feels it would be a magnet for illegal immigration.”

Instead, he said, Feinstein favors a more narrowly defined program that would “meet the serious need for more agricultural workers.”

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger welcomed Bush’s 2004 guest worker proposal as “moving in the right direction,” said his spokeswoman, Margita Thompson.

But she noted that the governor had not taken a public position on whether immigrants should be allowed to temporarily legalize their status through a guest worker program.