WASHINGTON – President Bush has told the nation he still plans to advance a proposal he made a year ago to grant temporary visas to illegal immigrants already in the United States, but many members of the conservative base that helped re-elect him say they staunchly disagree, and they are warning the White House not to take their loyalty for granted.
"What you have here is a huge grassroots base that hears about giving any sort of amnesty to illegal aliens, and they're ticked off," said William Greene, president of RightMarch.com, an activist organization that generates awareness of hot conservative issues and makes its members' positions known through targeted mail and faxes to members of Congress.
"You've got the base of the Republican Party, the grassroots conservatives, who got these people elected in the first place, and they're saying, 'we put you there for a reason, now how about doing something to stop the illegal immigration?'" Greene said. "We're saying that on this issue, your constituents are not with you, and you're going to have to watch your back because you have elections coming up."
Greene was of the majority opinion at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference (search) (CPAC) in Washington. A straw poll conducted throughout the conference found that 54 percent disagreed with guest worker visas (search). But aside from differences on immigration and a few other issues like government spending, this was clearly a pro-Bush, pro-GOP event.
"We believe in probably 95 percent of what [Bush] stands for — this [guest worker status] falls in that 5 percent area where we do part ways," said William Ricci Jr., northeast regional vice president of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies (search).
Bush proposed a plan in January 2004 that would grant temporary legal status to illegal aliens already working in the U.S. The status would last three years, with the possibility of renewals.
The president said in his State of the Union address this month that he continues to support temporary work visas for illegal workers. The White House said recently that Bush wants to work with Congress on the issue and expects to use the plan he introduced last year as a blueprint.
"It is time for an immigration policy that permits temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take, that rejects amnesty, that tells us who is entering and leaving our country, and that closes the border to drug dealers and terrorists," Bush said during the State of the Union.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators, including Larry Craig, R-Idaho; John McCain, R-Ariz.; Orrin Hatch, R-Utah and Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Democratic senators like Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, filed the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits, and Security (AgJOBS) Act of 2005. This bill would provide temporary green cards and the opportunity to earn the right to permanent work status to illegal migrant farm workers if they can prove they have been working for a period of 100 days since Jan. 1 and agree to a background check.
Craig said this would be the first step in solving the farm labor shortage problem, and creating a new workforce that has decent wages and is dependable. Sponsors say more than half the nation's 1.6 million agricultural workers lack proper documentation.
"If in our effort to protect our borders and to create a law enforcement community that can apprehend a person who has entered this country illegally, if all of that happens and we do not create a system that stabilizes and provides a legal foreign national workforce, we could literally collapse American agriculture," Craig said when he introduced the bill.
But some conservatives say these and other "amnesty-lite" proposals are rewarding people for breaking U.S laws. And they say they don't believe Republicans will provide the votes to push it through for the president.
"This idea is not popular at all," John Vinson, an editor at the Americans for Immigration Control Inc. (search), said at CPAC. "They say this is not amnesty, but this is amnesty. Amnesty is a pardon for law-breaking, period."
Gary Aldrich, founder and head of the Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty, said one would be hard-pressed to find anyone around CPAC who disagreed.
"I don't know of a single organization here that is suggesting we should lighten up on immigration status," said Aldridge, who indicated that a least 100 congressmen have already been identified as those who will stand against guest worker status proposals.
"There is an undercurrent in the conservative movement of nervousness," about the issue, he said. "I think this is a good example of the rift between true conservatives and those in the Bush administration along more neo-conservative lines, who see some benefits out of this politically."
But there were a few groups and individuals willing to say they aren't as much against the idea of guest worker visas as their conservative colleagues.
The Libertarian Party, which has disagreed with many of the Bush policies, including the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act (search), said it agreed with the president on this one.
"Libertarians support the Bush guest worker program. [Aliens] are here working, they're abiding by the law, of course they should become citizens — we think all immigrants who come here to get a job and better themselves should be able to do so," said party spokesman George Getz. "This is one small step in the right direction."
Then there are individuals who say they just don't the share passionate opposition to it that other conservatives have.
"It's not my hot-button issue," said Chris Green, president of RightGear.com, which was selling pro-Bush, pro-conservative t-shirts at CPAC. "It's about individual liberty for me, and I know these people coming here want individual liberty. If they are here already, and they aren't criminals, if they are here for three years and they work, sure."