WASHINGTON — In wide-ranging comments to Latino reporters, President Bush voiced support for Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos, chided Fidel Castro as being "out of step" and called on Congress to decide whether the employer sanction provision of the 1986 immigration law is causing widespread discrimination against Latinos.
Sixteen journalists were invited by the White House for the question-and-answer session, one of a series of briefings with various groups of reporters. Although Bush did not set forth substantially new policy positions, the session provided a forum for the President to express his views on a variety of Latino issues.
In an opening statement, Bush called education the foremost issue of "concern to the Hispanic community" and referred to Cavazos' work in directing a "massive study" on Latino educational issues.
Cavazos angered many Latinos earlier this year by putting the blame on parents for many of the achievement problems of Latino students, including a high-school dropout rate nearing 40%. In Los Angeles last month, where Cavazos held the last in a series of hearings on Latino education, he was assailed by a number of parents and educators.
Coming to Cavazos' defense, Bush said, "I've got great confidence in him. It burns me up when I see shots fired at him." The President said the Cavazos study will result in "key suggestions . . . that I'm sure will be turned around into action."
Regarding Castro, Bush said the Cuban leader "should be celebrating, along with other countries, the demise of the Berlin Wall." Instead, the President continued: "Castro is criticizing Gorbachev for being not true to a Communist revolution. He's out of step. He's swimming against the tide. He is a symbol, the lone holdout of a Marxist totalitarianism that has failed all around the world. And he ought to be better to his people than that."
Bush said that, if "Castro wants to say something constructive--more democracy, more freedom, more openness, more free press, more acceptance of a change that is worldwide, fine, I'm listening. . . . But to say that, as some have suggested, you ought to go down--sit down and talk to Castro right now and that will solve any problems, I don't see that at all."
Bush asserted that as long as the Soviet Union continues to provide a subsidy to Cuba, "it will be very, very difficult for the United States to help the Soviet Union with their enormous financial problems."
On immigration, Bush said he could not condone discriminatory employment practices, but he declined to acknowledge that the employer sanctions in the 1986 immigration law are causing job problems for Latinos who are legally entitled to work in the United States. And, he said, "I don't know about repealing it."
Instead, he urged Congress to investigate and determine whether discrimination practices are occurring. When a reporter pointed out that the General Accounting Office, the investigatory arm of Congress, already had issued a report citing prejudice against Latinos in employment, Bush said: "I haven't read the GAO report and so I don't comment on things I haven't read."
Latino national organizations have lobbied strongly for repeal of employer sanctions since the GAO issued its report last March 29. The GAO study found that "widespread discrimination is practiced by an estimated 19% of employers nationally and 29% of employers in the Los Angeles area."
The Latino groups argue that employers, rather than risk violating the law's sanctions, sometimes avoid hiring anyone who looks or sounds foreign.
There has been little support, however, for repeal of the sanctions by Congress.
During the 45-minute session, held in the Roosevelt Room, the President also touched on other subjects. Here are excerpts of Bush's comments:
On the proposed referendum in Puerto Rico on the island's future status:
"I strongly support such a referendum. . . . I'm for statehood and I've said so. I want to see a fair referendum to give the people their say. So I use this statement right now as a strong assertion that I support Congressman (Robert J.) Lagomarsino (R-Ojai) and others who are pushing for the kind of referendum that you asked me about."
On a pending civil rights bill:
"I hope we're going to get a civil rights bill I can sign. I've tried to be out front with some of the groups that have been lobbying, making clear to them that I'm not going to sign a quota bill. Everyone says there's no quotas in this bill, and then I say, well fine, let's state it; let's find ways to make it clear. Quotas work, in my view, against all groups . . .
"As you know, I've made a commitment to use the bully pulpit, which is the White House and the President's office, to speak out against racism and bigotry and hate. . . . Of course, we've passed this Hate Crimes Bill that I hope is going to be helpful."
On a proposed free-trade agreement with Mexico: