WASHINGTON – After proposing a bold new immigration strategy in January, President Bush has followed up his announcement with little action, causing immigration activists and politicians to wonder where the proposal stands.
In January, Bush proposed a sweeping immigration plan that would facilitate the path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants and make it easier for unskilled workers to come to America for work.
"The president made clear his principles for reform, which are to protect the Homeland and control our borders; match a willing foreign worker with a willing employer when no American can be found to fill that job; promote compassion; provide incentives for return to the home country; and protect the rights of legal immigrants," Eduardo Aguirre, Jr., director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (search) at the Department of Homeland Security (search), said during a March 23 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
But the principles have not been met with action, say critics on both sides of the issue, and the dead air coming from the White House suggests that the policy prescriptive was nothing more than an election year appeal to Hispanics, with the president never planning to push legislation.
"What is the administration doing? What will the administration do to push this issue since you do not have your own proposal up here?" asked Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a strong proponent of immigration reform, during the hearing. "The president deserves credit for stepping forward, as I have said many times publicly, but that only takes us 5 percent of the way."
Bush only raised the immigration issue to create "the perception that at least he's working on it, so it looks like he's getting something done. That’s the perception, but in reality nothing's really been done on it," said Carlos Espinosa, spokesman for Rep. Tom Tancredo (search), R-Colo., a conservative member and an outspoken critic of the president's plan.
Espinosa said the president's January announcement was "definitely political," and that the public at large will probably hear nothing more about it, though the administration might do "some targeted advertising to remind he people he at least did try."
The White House did not return calls for comment, but administration officials have insisted that the proposal is on track. In addition, Mexican President Vicente Fox (search) said the two leaders worked on the immigration proposal when he and Bush met last month at the president's ranch in Texas.
"We have to work together to develop a legal system that is orderly and safe and respects the dignity of those involved," Fox said at the time. "And that is why we welcome President Bush's proposal that he made in January. And that is why, in our meetings, we worked to advance this proposal, and that's what we have been doing today."
The president's own remarks on the matter suggest the political calendar is affecting the plan. At the same press conference with Fox, Bush refused to give a firm timetable on immigration reform, though he insisted he remains committed to it. He added that the U.S. and Mexico "are making progress" in crafting the best provisions.
"I certainly hope the Congress takes this issue up. But there's no telling what's going to happen in an election year, so it's very difficult to give a date. The date that matters to me is the date in which I laid out what I think is a reasonable plan, which was in January," Bush said.
The administration's inaction is not for lack of legislative options, said one sponsor of an immigration reform bill.
"The difficulty this issue poses, particularly in an election year, should not allow for an excuse to delay reform," said Sen. John McCain (search), R-Ariz.
President Bush's "principles for comprehensive immigration reform incorporated a market-based system, similar to the legislation introduced last summer in the House and Senate by Congressman [Jim] Kolbe, Congressman [Jeff] Flake, and myself, which would pair willing workers with willing employers. The president’s leadership and support will be essential to bringing this problem to a resolution and rallying a consensus in a much divided Congress," McCain said at the March hearing.
Pro- and anti- immigration groups are deeply skeptical of the administration's commitment to immigration reform, and say the president would have been wiser to stay silent if he didn't plan to act.
"This will be part of the president's stump speech in very, very targeted areas. It's not going to be discussed to the public in general because of zero public support. They are hoping in some constituencies it will curry favor for the president," said David Ray, spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform (search). "There must be some kind of voodoo-based political calculation coming out of Karl Rove's office."
Ray was doubtful about the possibility of seeing the administration back any legislation this year, calling the chances "almost nonexistent."
Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum (search), said it's likely that more behind-the-scenes movement is occurring than many observers realize, but she wonders whether the president's announcement was "just election year politics or whether he's on the road to serious policy reform." She added that plenty of bills could serve as models if the president is serious.
Among the most prominent she cited are the DREAM Act (search), which would expand education options for illegal immigrants and the AgJobs (search) bill, in which illegal farm workers could apply for temporary and permanent resident status.
"If the president were to show movement on those two bills, I think he would see a remarkable rise in support. If it's just talk and not any delivery I don’t think it's going to help him one bit," Kelley said.
If the January announcement had been a political move, it may have been a miscalculation, said Michele Waslin, senior immigration policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza (search).
"I believe that he thought it would be very popular in the Latino community, but my group and many Latinos were very dissatisfied with his proposal. At the same time, he got a lot of backlash from his own party, from conservative members of his own party," Waslin said.
Waslin acknowledged the difficulty of pushing controversial legislation through Congress in an election year, but she said that is no excuse for inaction, especially with the DREAM Act and the AgJobs bill sitting on Capitol Hill.
"Immigration is always a very contentious issue. In any year it would be difficult to pass an immigration bill. There are not enough calendar days to pass a comprehensive immigration bill in this election year, but there are these two bills that certainly could be passed this year."