WASHINGTON – Conservatives balking at President Bush's proposal to grant illegal immigrants three-year work permits are floating a counteroffer that would hamper his efforts to woo Hispanic voters in November's election.
It's a dicey political predicament for the president, one that seems likely to push a final vote on key elements of his plan into 2005, well after the November balloting.
Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga. (search), and Sens. Zell Miller (search), D-Ga., and Jeff Sessions (search), R-Ala., are conditioning their support for Bush's plan on Congress agreeing to also broaden the power of state and local police to arrest suspected illegal residents.
"If they don't have this in it, they'll pass that bill over my cold, dead political body," Sessions said of Bush's proposal.
Sessions, Miller and Norwood say they speak for thousands of conservatives who believe stronger enforcement of immigration laws must accompany any plan that would let illegal immigrants remain in the country legally.
Because federal immigration agents (search) are stretched too thin, they argue, 650,000 local police officers should be given the authority and resources to go after immigrants still undocumented after Bush's plan takes effect. Immigrant advocates say the distrust that would raise between Hispanics and police would erase any political advantage the president might hope to gain.
"Latinos very much support law enforcement, which is why we think making police officers immigration agents is a terrible idea," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza (search). "If the victim of domestic violence feels she can't be calling police because they might be asking for papers, that's bad for the public safety."
Many Senate Democrats agree that conditioning the work permits for illegals on deputizing local police to help enforce immigration laws would do more harm than good.
"Our police officers have gone about the business of protecting their communities, and left the federal government to enforce civil immigration laws," said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The division of labor makes a great deal of sense, and the burden faced by those who would change it should be awfully high."
Norwood said his Clear Law Enforcement for the Criminal Alien Removal Act (search) could actually be popular among Latinos because it targets law breakers, particularly those identified as crime suspects in a national computer database.
"If you got tough with the enforcement of our laws, I honestly believe you would get more votes from the Hispanic community," Norwood said.
Administration officials are treading carefully on the concept of local enforcement, but supporters of the Norwood and Sessions bills are interpreting some of their recent comments to mean they might be open to the idea.
Questioned by Sessions at a recent hearing, Asa Hutchinson (search), the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, conceded there are not enough federal agents to go after illegal immigrants every time the police call them in.
Hutchinson then pointed out that Bush is asking Congress to double work-site enforcement, detention and removal facilities in the 2005 budget.
At another hearing, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, asked Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to consider forging "cooperative law enforcement agreements" with local police rather than spending money on training new federal immigration agents.
Ridge said Craig's idea had gotten mixed reviews on the local level, but he didn't rule it out.
"Part of the reason may be philosophical, others may be fiscal," Ridge said. "Either way, you've got 650,000 men and women in local law enforcement that should be viewed as a potential asset and resource in enforcing the new law, whatever it might be."
Craig, who is co-sponsoring Sessions' bill, is also pushing one of his own that would establish an agriculture worker program. Although he said he doesn't care whether the enforcement proposal passes first or last, he acknowledged that conservatives may block other immigration plans without it.
"In a broad-based approach of the kind the president is talking about, that linkage might be necessary," Craig said.