Immigration Reform Considered After Ridge Hints at Amnesty

President Bush is meeting next month with Mexican President Vicente Fox at the Summit of the Americas (search) in Monterrey, Mexico, where immigration reforms stymied after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks are sure to be on the agenda.

Mexico is looking for the United States to ease restrictions on the entry of unskilled workers and on visas for family members of legal immigrants. Bush had made the reforms a top policy priority before the terror attacks, but the objectives were deferred in the wake of national security following Sept. 11.

But recent statements by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge have breathed new life into the dormant discussions. Earlier this month, Ridge suggested that illegal aliens in America be legalized in some way.

"The bottom line is, as a country we have to come to grips with the presence of 8 to 12 million illegals, afford them some kind of legal status some way, but also as a country decide what our immigration policy is and then enforce it," Ridge said in a Dec. 9 forum in Miami.

The proposed reprieve shocked immigration activists -- both for and against eased restrictions. Citing national security and economic concerns, some immigration experts harshly criticized Ridge, saying that he was hinting at an amnesty.

"It's hard to imagine the principal law enforcement officer of the land advocating policy that would necessarily undermine the law of the land," said John Keeley, director of communications for the Center for Immigration Studies (search).

Still, others said it's about time the administration recognized that current immigration policy is a failure.

"If you continue to try to enforce a dysfunctional policy all you get is more dysfunction," said Judith Golub, senior director of advocacy and public affairs at the American Immigration Lawyers Association (search).

"There's no one who would disagree that our immigration is out of whack with reality. It doesn’t meet our security needs. It doesn’t meet our economic needs," she said, adding that if the administration is turning back its attention to immigration, "I think it's good news and high time."

Opponents of Ridge's suggestion say that allowing a free flow of immigrants will undo any successes by law enforcement to stop terrorists from entering the country.

"The way to protect our nation from international terrorists is to drain the swamp of mass illegal immigration that provides cover for the terrorists, not to perfume the swamp and pretend that it no longer poses a threat," Federation of American Immigration Reform (search) Executive Director Dan Stein said in a statement.

"Basically, the borders are wide open. Basically, we don’t have any defenses for our borders at a time when we are trying to prosecute a war on terror," Keeley said, explaining that Ridge's intimation of an amnesty would do little to stem the flow of illegal immigrants.

Already attempted in 1986, the amnesty then encouraged illegal immigration because it sent the message that "the United States wasn’t serious about enforcing the law," Keeley said.

Furthemore, he said, legalizing undocumented immigrants would be risky to national security because it would give DHS bureaucrats enormous additional burdens and would allow immigrants legal status without going through the normal channels, thus increasing the danger terrorists or criminals could slip in.

Bush has ruled out granting a blanket amnesty, but in a Dec. 15 news conference, said that more can be done to match immigrant workers with needy employers.

"We need to have an immigration policy that helps match any willing employer with any willing employee. It makes sense that that policy go forward. And we're in the process of working that through now so I can make a recommendation to the Congress," the president said.

Immigration reform is headed back onto the Bush administration agenda as the White House gears up for its 2004 re-election bid. A political amnesty would be a touchy subject for the president as he tries to juggle the immigration issue, popular with the nation's growing Hispanic population, but alienating to conservatives in the Republican base.

Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum (search), said Americans need to accept the reality that immigrants are coming and adjust policy to reflect the nation's security, economic, and social priorities. Kelley said making it easier for families to reunite, matching employers with workers and developing a more coherent enforcement strategy will strengthen immigration policy.

Kelley added that a blanket amnesty is likely not the best solution, but the president could win hearts and minds of voters, both Hispanic and conservative, by requiring prospective legal residents to attend civics and English language classes.

She said she does not support "a free ride for anybody, but at the same time we can't pretend that these folks aren't contributing. In many cases, they are doing jobs that others don't want to. Without them, we as a nation would have a difficult time functioning," she said.

While attention has been focused on the president's policy, lawmakers too have been mulling over a number of immigration bills.

Several amnesty and guest worker bills are pending in Congress, the most prominent of which was introduced by three Arizona Republicans, Sen. John McCain and Reps Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake. Their bill would grant permanent residency to foreign workers who entered the country legally and to illegal workers already in the country.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has also proposed allowing employers to sponsor an unlimited number of foreign workers.

Representatives on the other side of the immigration issue are also developing a legislative front. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., chairman of the House immigration caucus, submitted a bill in November that boosts money for border control and increases penalties for violations.