Hoping to build on that support, Bush has named several Latinos to top positions, including Alberto Gonzales, the White House counsel, and Mel Martinez, until recently the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He strongly, but unsuccessfully, supported Senate confirmation of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The immigration proposal takes the push for Latino sympathy for the first time into a major targeted policy initiative.
With initiatives like the immigration proposal, "Bush could win half the Hispanic vote nationally in 2004," said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster. "That would be an enormous accomplishment for the Republican Party."
But in the process of reaching for that prize, Bush is reopening deep divisions within the party over immigration. Many Republicans agree that the party needs to welcome immigrants if it is to build a sustainable majority politically and the country is to thrive economically.
In addition to Latinos, the constituencies pushing immigration reform -- from small businesses to farmers to Mexican President Vicente Fox -- are extremely important to both Bush and the GOP.
But other Republicans worry that illegal immigrants soak up social services and other resources that should go to U.S. citizens, and that their presence undermines the rule of law.
Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) denounced Bush's proposal, saying, "It is dangerous to offer additional incentives and rewards for illegal immigration while giving only lip service to border security." Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) said Bush's guest worker program "cannot work."
Barbara Coe, founder and chairwoman of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, which favors restrictions on immigration, said Bush "has just put out a welcome mat to illegal immigrants, violent criminals, drug smugglers and terrorists."
Unless Bush can persuade such critics -- as he tried in his speech Wednesday -- that his proposal does not amount to amnesty, there are probably enough Republicans who oppose immigration reform that it would be difficult for him to ram it through Congress as he has other trademark initiatives, such as his tax cuts.
"It's a long road," said a senior House Republican leadership aide. "There is not a lot of time and, frankly, there is going to be some opposition."
One possibility, the aide said, is that Congress could pass a more limited immigration measure this year, such as a bipartisan bill drafted last fall that would allow an estimated 500,000 undocumented farm workers to become legal U.S. residents.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, in Mexico City to meet with Mexican officials, said the issue would be addressed "immediately and with real focus."
"The fact that it's a political year obviously complicates the issue because you typically see partisanship arise in more dramatic ways," he told reporters.
The key question is how hard Bush plans to press a divided congressional GOP to act on the bill before the November elections. A senior House Republican aide said the early message from the White House was that it was important, but not essential, for the president that it be enacted this year.
"It's enough for him to put this out there, " the aide said. "The White House would like to have it, but they don't have to have it" enacted before the election.
Calculating the Latino influence
The Bush administration's immigration proposal could play a role in shaping the Latino vote in this year's presidential election. Nationally, 1 in 8 Americans is Latino, but Latinos accounted for only 1 in 20 votes in the 2000 election. Listed below are the nine states with the largest number of Latino voters in the 2000 presidential race:
*--* Percentage of state vote State All voters Latino voters that was Latino California 11.5 million 1.6 million 14% Texas 7 million 1.3 million 18.6% Florida 6 million 678,000 11.3% New York 7 million 502,000 7.2% Arizona 1.6 million 247,000 15% Illinois 5 million 218,000 4% New Mexico 647,000 191,000 30% New Jersey 3.4 million 179,000 5% Colorado 1.6 million 158,000 10% Nationwide 110 million 5.9 million 5.4%
Times staff writers John Glionna in San Francisco and Jennifer Mena in Orange County and Richard Boudreaux in Mexico City contributed to this report.