Immigration reform gains an unlikely ally in Congress: the GOP

By Dana Wilkie 

October 21, 2003

WASHINGTON Speed citizenship for immigrants in the armed forces.


Give work permits to illegal immigrants who pay taxes and study English.


Legalize tens of thousands of high school students, some of whom discover only when applying

for college financial aid that their parents brought them here illegally.


These ideas have floated around Congress for years, promoted mostly by Democrats and immigrant advocates.


But now, some of Capitol Hill's most powerful Republicans are pushing the plans.


As politicians strive to court Latino voters who will influence next year's elections and placate powerful

business groups that need immigrant labor, several efforts to legalize millions of undocumented workers

and students are gaining momentum in Congress.


"The majority of these people are seeking the American dream, looking for a good-paying job

that will enable them to provide a better life for themselves and their families," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.,

one of several Republicans pushing immigration reforms. "We must recognize that as long as there are jobs available

and employers in need of workers, people will continue to migrate."


One plan with a good chance of becoming law would legalize as many as 500,000 agricultural workers

and trim the paperwork for hiring those workers from abroad. The plan, by Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho,

and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has been negotiated for years between farmworkers' unions and farmers

and has the support of Senate leaders and the White House. Immigrants who can show they did farm work

for 100 days over the past 18 months would get temporary resident status. They would have to work another

360 days in the following six years to keep that status.


Normally, the bill's roughest ride would be in the House Judiciary Committee, immigration advocates said,

but James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the committee's chairman, seems to have warmed

to some immigration reform ideas.


Some experts see that as a testament to how powerful farm interests have given new momentum

to immigration legislation.


"The agricultural interests are really quite formidable in Congress, and many of them need workers

at a price they can afford to pay," said Sidney Weintraub, who runs the Americas Program

at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


Kennedy is working with another Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska on a plan that would,

for a $1,000 fee, grant work permits to immigrants who have been in the country for five years,

paid taxes for three years and taken English instruction. Their spouses and children

also would receive legal status.


McCain and Reps. Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe, all Arizona Republicans, would give law-abiding

undocumented workers in other industries restaurants and hotels, for instance

a chance to get work permits. Workers would have to wait six years for permits,

and there is no provision for their families.


Immigration expert Riordan Roett said he believes Republicans are warming to legalization plans

because Americans are warming to the idea of granting legal status to undocumented workers

who have long contributed to the U.S. economy and paid taxes.


"I think there is now a growing sense that the Latino population is spread across this country,

and that they're seen as good citizens in more and more congressional districts," said Roett,

director of the Western Hemisphere Program for the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies.


Others, however, believe Republicans recognize the need to appeal

to more Latino voters before next year's elections.


In August, a New York Times/CBS poll showed that only 21 percent of Latinos would vote for President Bush,

though Bush carried 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000. Experts believe this disenchantment arose

after Bush failed to keep a promise to help undocumented immigrants gain legal status

by reducing waiting periods for naturalization.


"Democrats, having allowed Bush to gain the initiative, now have seized it back," said Robert Leiken,

director of the Immigration and National Security Program at The Nixon Center,

a foreign policy think tank. "Republicans are trying to regain it."


Not all Republicans are on board, however. Conservatives say many of the plans moving through Congress

reward people who broke immigration laws while costing U.S. citizens jobs.


In general, immigration advocates dislike the strictly Republican plans, such as McCain's,

because they leave out workers' families and lack worker protections.


"We're very happy Republicans are looking at immigration reform, but (the McCain bill) won't solve any problems,"

said Katherine Culliton, an immigrants' rights attorney with the

Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.


Immigrant advocates are happy, however, with a plan by GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah that would give

conditional residency to as many as 70,000 teenagers who have been in the country five years,

graduated from high school and have no criminal record. Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee,

expects the committee to pass his plan Thursday.


"Often, these students don't find out until they fill out financial aid forms

that their parents stuck them in this immigration limbo," said James Ferg-Cadima,

legislative staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.


Another plan, by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, would speed citizenship for the 37,000 immigrants

serving in the U.S. armed forces. California Rep. Hilda Solis,

D-El Monte, has a similar plan that has passed the House and is included in a Defense Department appropriations bill.