Immigration, the Upcoming Presidential Race and the Latino Vote
Bush proposal awaits being made final.
Immigration situation remains muddied, as the pre-9/11 consensus no longer in place.
Push/Pull factors at work as Bush proposal both attracts and repels Latinos.
How to win over Latino votes without offending those opposed to rewarding violators of the law who illegally enter the
America’s presidential candidates are on the verge of launching a political sumo match aimed at securing part of the
all-important Hispanic vote. President Bush unveiled his electoral strategy January 7 with his Fair and Secure
Immigration Reform. This initiative closely followed a similar message introduced in June 2003 by Senators John McCain
(R-AZ) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). Recently however, the same legislators, as well as other
pro-immigration-reformers have begun to express their disappointment with the Bush administration for losing steam on
its own proposal. "There's nothing worse than raising expectations, getting people all excited about a proposal that's
not going to be taken very seriously," said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
which held a hearing on U.S.-Mexico relations on March 23. The same day, a disillusioned McCain told reporters that as
of now the issue has been dropped because it is “politically too hot.”
With the election approaching, 2004 is likely to prove to be a year for mainly non-controversial legislation. For the
Bush campaign, the matter isn’t just theoretical, if it is unable to secure at least 45 percent of the vote of America’s
largest minority, the Republicans predictably will continue being the minority party in terms of registered voters,
facing what could be formidable electoral odds. While the President’s immigration proposal is still being doctored, and
has yet to be introduced in Congress, political jockeying already has began and is sure to reach a frenzy by Labor Day.
The Guts of the Bush Plan
The president’s plan is based on the initial issuance of a three-year visa—renewable once for three more years—for all
immigrants without legal status. This process would allow resident illegal immigrants in the U.S., as well as those
wishing to work here, to participate in a temporary labor program by declaring themselves and certifying their status
here. After six years, the visa would expire and immigrants nominally would be expected to return to their homeland, but
in practice, most of them could be permitted to remain here and apply for a green card. To begin with, they will have to
establish that they have a job. But in order for legalized migrants to qualify for hire, their prospective U.S.
employers must first prove that they have fruitlessly attempted to employ American nationals. On the Latin labor side,
opting to work in some low-paid service industry is not necessarily a pre-condition to file for immigration
regularization, but if unemployed, this would have a chilling effect on one’s legalization prospects.
Details of Guest Work Program
It can be argued that the Bush immigration reform—while relatively attractive for Mexicans anxious to participate in a
U.S. guest worker program—is less than ideal for the estimated 8 to 11 million illegal immigrants already in the
country, of which more than half are Latinos. Under the new plan, many resident undocumented immigrants who earlier were
undecided whether they wanted to develop lasting roots here, would have the opportunity to do so before their allocated
six-year authorized working period had expired. However, immigrants who will have worked hard in this country for six
years (in many cases, having been illegal residents here for many years previously), will now have to face at least the
theoretical prospect of being forced to return to a homeland which their children may never have seen. At the very
least, the harsh stakes that the Bush plan proposes, together with its uncertainties, is likely to dissuade many illegal
immigrants from giving up their long nurtured clandestine status to participate in it.
A variety of pro and con critiques of existing U.S. immigration policies sprang up in the months subsequent to Bush’s
January statement. Many Republicans proceeded to call it an “amnesty” program due to the fact that it strays from the
current policy, at least in theory, that illegal immigrants and candidates are to be immediately deported. Allowing
current undocumented immigrants to apply for the program without considering that these applicants had violated the law
by their illegal entrance into this country is of great concern to many conservative Republicans.
The reform bill also caused a spike in criticism from both Hispanic groups and Democrats. The Hispanic organizations
argue that the plan could face the same problems as previous guest worker programs that failed to provide more green
cards to satisfy the high demand of those who eventually wanted to obtain citizenship. Democratic front-runner Senator
Kerry quietly addressed the issue and briefly mentioned that he would support an amendment that would allow residents to
“earn” citizenship. But in true Kerry fashion, and similar to the prevailing conduct of the current administration which
originally authored it, the provocative issue is now on the back burner until it breaks into flames as a hot issue. Some
Hispanic groups along with immigrant activists are also concerned that the legislation would put guest workers at the
mercy of their employers due to its vague outlines of jobsite responsibilities and infractions.
Some economists have expressed uneasiness if not dismay, over a policy that would assign millions of U.S. jobs to
foreign-born workers at a time of economic instability for U.S. labor. Supplying businesses with workers willing to fill
undesirable jobs may also impair the U.S. economy, since many enterprises will no longer have an incentive to increase
the hourly wages or benefits in order to fill the positions in a lax job marktet. Also, many opposed to the proposed
Bush program say it would fundamentally reward illegal immigration and harm those who have either completed the steps
for legal immigration or are awaiting their visas—basically, those who played by the rules. However, while the long-term
effects of the program may seem unfair, or at least uneven, the short-term benefits may be attractive for many current
undocumented workers, as well as their prospective employers and family.
The Bush Strategy
Bush first sketched the outlines of an immigrant job program to the public in his 2000 campaign platform. Now, with the
2004 election approaching, the president is intent on giving the initiative priority. When initially released, the
proposal was calculated to be politically well-received by a relatively neglected minority at a crucial moment for the
future of the Bush presidency. A recent example of this stepped up state of urgency was the concession that Bush offered
up several weeks ago when President Fox visited his Texas ranch. Bush used that occasion to announce that border
controls would be eased between the U.S. and Mexico, including the discontinuation of fingerprinting and the
photographing of Mexican nationals crossing the border for even short trips (over two-thirds of all Latino illegal
immigrants are Mexican).
President Fox previously had called upon the White House to consider toning down its newly formulated harsh immigration
procedures along the southern border. At first, the prospect for any significant improvement regarding immigration
issues essentially evaporated on 9/11, and since then there has been almost no movement on the matter. Fox’s intense
motivation for border reforms stems from his need to appease disgruntled Mexican voters after failing to fulfill his
campaign promise to create more jobs. While some of Bush’s more cynical detractors accuse him of revisiting his
connections with the Latino community only when the need to secure its votes is high on his agenda, many other critics,
with considerable justification, argue that the shallow immigration initiatives proposed by Bush have just enough
substance to placate the Latin bloc’s leadership in order for it to endorse his relatively shallow initiative.
Addressing minority audiences four years ago, Bush insisted that the Republicans constitute “the party of freedom and
progress, and it is your home.” Unfortunately, from Bush’s perspective, it has turned out to be the dwelling for only 35
percent of the Hispanics voting in the last election. That bloc, comprised mainly of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans
(but now also including growing communities of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Haitians and Dominicans), has proven to be an
increasingly important swing vote in previous close elections. Demographic realities increasingly have persuaded U.S.
politicians to address issues important to Latinos as a whole as well as to court its sub-groups—particularly regarding
immigration law reform.
However, Bush’s scheme to capture the loyalty of Latinos was not as successful as his campaign managers would have
hoped. In a recent poll conducted by Bendixen and Associates, it was found that while a majority of Hispanic respondents
liked the plan at first, opposition nearly doubled when those polled were told that most workers risked the prospect of
having to return to their home countries after the expiration of the three or six-year visas.
The Border and Post 9/11
Bush is also faced with the challenge of having to appeal to a post 9/11 America where he has made the question of
homeland security to be of the highest priority. In a hearing on April 1, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border
Protection, Robert Bonner, praised the president for the proposal that will give his department “greater control over
our borders.” While President Bush speaks about opening borders, he has chosen to address the terrorism issue by
wrapping the U.S. border in increasingly more red tape, despite his recent vow to alleviate border tensions between the
U.S. and Mexico. Through tactful phrasing, Bush has managed to disguise a beef-up of visa regulation as an extension of
the temporary workers’ quota. In this way, he will be able to appeal both to Latinos desperate for a way to gain entry
into the U.S., and to those many Americans gravely concerned about terrorists and the porosity of U.S. borders.
Strife Over Immigration Reform
Strategically, the White House ceremony at which Bush announced his new immigration plan almost exclusively included
leaders of Latino advocacy groups, although immigration reform is far from being only of Hispanic concern. Clearly, it
was yet another White House effort to target the immigration issue in its own narrow interest rather than the general
Congressional leaders already have begun to scrutinize the Bush plan for resolving the illegal immigrant issue, though
the lack of muscle behind the pending initiative has cast grave doubt over the possibility of it being able to pass the
legislative hurdles before the end of the year. The President’s own party is severely divided on the question, with a
number of Republican senators recently criticizing him for introducing the legislation without the necessary
follow-through. “Illegal immigration cannot be rewarded with amnesty,” Illinois Republican senate hopeful Jim Oberweis
told the New York Times. Also, many Republicans have been hesitant to support Bush’s agenda of substantially
liberalizing U.S. immigration policy in post-9/11 America, citing the nation’s desire for an increase in homeland
security where safety must come before major immigration reform. On the other hand, many corporate executives praise
Bush for attempting to help the U.S. business sector gain access to cheap migrant labor by regularizing its status.
One practical approach could be to allow immigrants, if they qualify, to be granted an extended stay in the country
until their regularization paperwork is completed and their case decided. As of now, Bush’s immigration proposal will
not necessarily alleviate the illegal factor now bedeviling undocumented immigrants in this country, but will likely
thrust them into a process which while at first glance appears promising, could end up shattering their dreams.
This analysis was prepared by Jenna Wright, Research Associate.