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Major Garrett: Amnesty could win Hispanic vote

Major Garrett
CNN White House Correspondent Major Garrett  

The Bush administration is considering a proposal to give the more than 3 million illegal Mexican nationals in the United States legal status to remain. CNN White House Correspondent Major Garrett explains the possible reasons behind what would be a bold political move.

Q: What does the Bush administration feel will be accomplished by legalizing illegal Mexicans? Why such "preferential" treatment for Mexicans and not people of other nationalities?

GARRETT: The proposal is coming from the Justice Department and State Department, part of a high-level task force of U.S. and Mexican government officials charged with reviewing all immigration issues between the two countries. As such, it wasn't asked to look at immigration questions outside of the United States and Mexico.

Administration officials acknowledge that if Bush proposes some kind of new amnesty for Mexican workers, he will be open to considering similar changes for other immigrant groups. Politically, that's a foregone conclusion, because the grievances of illegal immigrants from other nations are just the same, even if the numbers are not. It's an extremely volatile issue. The word "amnesty" carries a lot of negative baggage, particularly among conservative Republicans.

So the White House is looking for a different term. What it has come up with so far is "regularization." What does that mean? I can't say for sure. The White House describes it as in between amnesty and a guest worker program, which gives workers legal status for a set period of time. Whatever the White House calls it, it appears it is giving serious consideration to an amnesty program.

Q: How much of this is politically driven, and could the decision divide the Republican Party?

GARRETT: Immigration policy is some of the toughest, hard-ball politics in Washington. Who gets into the country and who doesn't. Decisions don't get any tougher than that. The winners and losers are stark. So are the forces behind all sides.

The Bush White House is looking for ways to appeal more broadly to Hispanic voters. This may be one of them. Registration trends decidedly favor the Democrats among Hispanics, but a move such as this could tip the scales more in Bush's favor. That is unknown and unknowable right now. But it's very tempting.

The counterargument is that it is unfair: Why should Mexicans get to "jump the line" and win instant or near-instant legal status while thousand and thousands of others who have waited patiently for legal status still have to wait and deal with the same maddening immigration bureaucracy? What is more, many conservative Republicans oppose amnesty on law-and-order grounds. They argue it is just wrong to award legal status to workers who have broken the law, and by so doing you only create more powerful incentives for others to cross the border illegally.

If Bush were to push for full amnesty or something very much like it, he would incur their wrath. He would win substantial Democratic support, though, and would in all likelihood prevail, but not without leaving some very bad feelings among congressional Republicans -- and quite possibly some bad blood among his conservative Republican base across the country.

Q: How popular is this proposal within the GOP? What about Democrats?

GARRETT: Moderate Republicans would tend to embrace it; conservatives would oppose it strenuously. Most Democrats are strongly supportive. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt rushed out a statement Monday applauding Bush's consideration of amnesty. President Clinton pushed for it in his last year in office, but Republicans blocked him.

Q: Is this something Bush has wanted to do for a long time since his days as governor of Texas?

GARRETT: Bush has an interesting history on immigration. In his first term as governor he split publicly when California Gov. Pete Wilson of California, a Republican, pushed Proposition 187 to deny welfare benefits to illegal immigrants. Wilson also wanted Congress to pass a law saying states did not have to provide a public school education to the children of illegal immigrants.

Bush made it very clear to Washington Republicans that he disagreed with both approaches. He lobbied against denying children an education simply because their parents were illegal immigrants. At the time, he said it wasn't the fault of the children that their parents were in the United States illegally, that they were the last people society should punish. The worst thing society could do, Bush said at the time, would be to deny them an education.

Bush knows this issue very well and campaigned more aggressively than any Republican in Texas for the Hispanic vote. And he won most of it in his re-election campaign in 1998. That success played no small role in giving Bush a different and more appealing aura in the early days of the GOP presidential contest. The party was hungry, desperate some might say, for a candidate with broader appeal. Bush's success in winning the Hispanic vote so handily in Texas gave him that aura. It helped in his early quest for the presidency. So you might say the thread runs from there to here.

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