Immigrant plan quietly in the works

Times Staff Writer

With President Bush looking to counter a legacy increasingly marred by the war in Iraq, the White House has launched a bold, behind-the-scenes drive to advance a key domestic goal: immigration reform.

For a month, White House staffers and Cabinet members have met three to four times a week with influential Republican senators and aides to hash out a consensus plan designed to draw a significant number of GOP votes.

With that effort largely completed, Republicans were hoping to present their proposal Wednesday to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who would lead the Democrats in any attempt to move a bill through the Senate.


The intense effort -- conceived by the president’s chief political strategist, Karl Rove -- is intended to ensure that Bush will achieve at least one crucial policy victory in the last two years of his presidency.

Success on immigration reform could also accomplish another Rove goal, shoring up the GOP’s weakened support among Latinos, who are even more important to the party as independent voters become increasingly disenchanted.

Time is short, though. Immigration is one of the few areas where the Democratic Congress sees eye to eye with the lame-duck president, but strains between the two are likely to worsen as the 2008 election nears.

Though public work on an immigration overhaul appeared to have slowed, momentum simply moved behind closed doors.

“We are working very hard on this,” Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in an interview, calling it a “top priority.”

Republicans hope to use their consensus plan as leverage to persuade Democrats to adopt some of their positions. Advocates warn, though, that the GOP’s gambit could backfire if it generates distrust among Democrats. That could effectively end any chance of an overhaul.


“The president really wants this. He also needs this; it may be the only positive policy thing he can accomplish before he leaves office,” said Laura Foote Reiff, co-chairwoman of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a business alliance.

But she worries that the GOP effort could delay a bill. “I am concerned that the White House strategy may not get us closer to consensus. I hope I’m wrong. We are very concerned that the window is closing.”

Kennedy has been waiting to see what the Republicans propose. Potentially fatal fault lines run through the question of citizenship for illegal immigrants and whether guest workers should be able to remain in the country and apply for legal status. So far, no one has devised a solution that will draw enough votes from both parties.

The White House has focused its energy on the Senate, which plans to move first. If the Senate can pass a bipartisan bill with strong Republican backing, it could give conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats in the House the political cover to vote for it.

The Republican strategy sessions, held in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, have typically included Gutierrez, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, White House personnel, six to 10 senators and various aides. Republicans with real differences on immigration are taking part, including both Arizona senators. Jon Kyl opposes giving illegal immigrants citizenship, and John McCain favors giving legal status to illegal immigrants who meet certain criteria.

The atmosphere has been collegial, attendees say. The late afternoon brainstorming sessions have lasted two to three hours, with participants working in their shirt sleeves over bottles of mineral water, sifting through increasingly detailed proposals for dealing with the border, temporary workers, illegal immigrants and employer verification systems. The aim was to create core principles that would garner support from at least 25 Republicans.


Details of the Republican plan have not been released, but some of the proposals are known. Some illegal immigrants would be given legal status through an infinitely renewable “Z visa.” Those who want to become U.S. citizens would have to leave the country and return legally. A guest worker program would be created that does not allow participants to bring family members, remain in the U.S. or become citizens. And, to ensure that employers can check on whether job applicants are legal, databases at Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration would be linked.

The Republican group is also considering several “triggers,” or benchmarks, that would have to be met on improved border security, work-site enforcement and document verification before other changes could be made.

“If you do this right, it requires a tremendous amount of attention to detail,” Gutierrez said. “We don’t have the luxury of letting more time go by. Businesses are beginning to feel the impact of not having workers.”

Republicans stressed that the discreet talks were necessary to avoid the bitter public battles that scarred the last round of debate. “There’s a real desire for this to work -- it can’t be litigated in print,” Kyl said. “We have to work senator to senator and representative to representative, the way compromises used to be put together, to maximize our chances of success.”

Yet some say excess discretion spurred the GOP effort in the first place.

Kennedy and McCain had been working together on a new version of the immigration bill that the Senate passed last year. The White House felt locked out of those negotiations and worried that Kennedy would push unacceptable positions, said a source close to the negotiations who requested anonymity. “The White House said, ‘We’ve got to do something to help salvage the process.’ ”