Administration Vague on Issue of Citizenship

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Times Staff Writer

As the struggle over an immigration overhaul reaches a make-or-break stage in the Senate, President Bush has adopted a strategy of calculated ambiguity that some worry may increase the risk of a legislative stalemate.

Administration officials have been closely involved in this week’s swirling Senate negotiations over proposals to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws.

But, in public and private, Bush and his aides have avoided a clear position on the most difficult issue dividing senators: whether to provide a clear path to American citizenship for as many as 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States -- a process critics deride as amnesty.


The formal “statement of administration position” on immigration reform issued Tuesday night only deepened the confusion. Within hours of the statement’s release, senators sponsoring the two principal alternatives for handling illegal immigrants both claimed it as a White House endorsement of their approach.

“That tells you the White House statement was slippery enough that both sides could plausibly claim support,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative group that opposes efforts to legalize illegal immigrants.

Those sympathetic to the White House approach say it is executing a sophisticated legislative strategy by allowing the Senate maximum flexibility to reach its own compromise.

“I think it’s a shrewd strategy, because [Bush] is giving them enough leeway to see what the political marketplace can bear -- to see where Democrats and Republicans from very different perspectives can come together around an answer,” said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who supports an immigration overhaul.

Others, on both sides of the issue, worry that Bush’s reticence increases the danger that no bill will emerge from the complex legislative maneuvering in the Senate. “If he’s interested in real reform, he should step in and take a side,” said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration group. “Maybe they can sit back and think it’s going to be fine [in the Senate] ... but it’s just as likely to blow up.”

The dispute involves one of the most emotional issues in the overall immigration debate.

Legislation approved late last month by the Senate Judiciary Committee would allow illegal immigrants already in the U.S. to work as temporary guest workers and then apply for permanent legal residence, and ultimately citizenship, without leaving the country.


That approach, modeled on legislation co-sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), would provide illegal immigrants with visas to work for six years and then allow them to move toward citizenship once they paid a fine, paid any back taxes and enrolled in English and civics classes. It has drawn support from most Senate Democrats and from immigrant rights and religious groups, as well as some Republicans.

An alternative sponsored by Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona would also allow illegal immigrants to work temporarily but require them to return to their home country before applying for legal residence. Most conservatives prefer that alternative, although many other conservatives oppose any measure that would allow illegal immigrants to work legally in the U.S.

More recently, Republican Sens. Mel Martinez of Florida and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska have floated an alternative. Their proposal, still being developed, would allow illegal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for five years to move toward citizenship without leaving the country, but would require more recent illegal arrivals to present themselves at a U.S. port of entry to begin the legalization process.

The administration, in its statement on the legislation this week, did not directly state which of those approaches, if any, it preferred. Instead, the statement says the administration “firmly opposes amnesty” as well as “an automatic path to permanent residency or citizenship.”

The statement adds that the administration considers the 1986 legislation signed by President Reagan to legalize illegal immigrants flawed because it did provide such a path.

But because the Bush administration statement does not define “amnesty” or “automatic path,” both sides in the Senate standoff claimed validation.


About four hours after the administration issued its position paper, Cornyn released a statement declaring that the paper placed the president behind his own harder-line approach. “The administration’s statement is clear: Amnesty is unacceptable, and we must create a temporary worker program that also addresses our economic needs,” Cornyn said.

An hour later, Kennedy issued a statement claiming that the position paper showed that the White House endorsed his plan.

“I am encouraged by the White House statement of policy and believe it is consistent with the McCain-Kennedy plan for comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.

White House officials, though, insist the president has been careful to avoid endorsing the specific approach in either plan.

Erin Healy, a White House spokeswoman, said only: “We’ve always said we want to work with Congress to achieve comprehensive reform, and we are continuing to do that even now.”

That approach has frustrated some of those searching for a compromise that could attract the 60 votes necessary to break a Senate filibuster, from the left or the right.

Don Stewart, communications director for Cornyn, said that more specificity from the White House would help because that faction believed the president would come down closer to its approach. If the White House “came out and had more clarity about” what the president wanted to do with illegal immigrants now in the U.S., “it would help a lot in our caucus,” Stewart said.


Krikorian, conversely, said he believed the president was avoiding more specifics because he favored the Judiciary Committee’s more lenient approach but feared angering his conservative base. “The president is in enough trouble with his base,” Krikorian said.

But another senior Republican Senate aide was more sympathetic. He said the White House goal appeared to be avoiding an unequivocal position on the pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants before the bill reached a House-Senate conference committee.

“Their goal is to only have to get involved in negotiations once,” when both chambers are considering the bill in that conference, said the staffer, who asked for anonymity in discussing internal Senate deliberations.

The danger in that strategy is that the legislation would never reach a conference if the Senate ultimately failed to resolve the differences that have prevented action this week.


Times staff writer Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.