There was not much detail in the plan President Bush announced last week to fix this country's broken immigration system. But one thing Bush was very specific about -- that he does not want his proposal to be an "amnesty" for illegal immigrants -- drew near-universal criticism from Latino civil rights advocates.
They may want to reconsider.
Amnesty for the estimated 8 million to 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States could be the deal breaker that keeps Congress from enacting any kind of reform, even the common sense "guest worker" program Bush envisions.
Saying he wants to "match willing foreign workers with willing American employers," Bush would grant undocumented workers already in this country -- and those abroad who can prove they have a job waiting for them in the United States -- temporary legal status for three to six years. At the end of that period, they could opt to join the long line of foreigners who apply to become permanent legal residents, or return home. Among the incentives Bush believes will encourage them to leave is the right to claim money they paid into retirement accounts or tax-deferred plans once they are back in their homelands.
Bush's plan includes many of the ideas his administration was discussing with the Mexican government before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Those ideas made sense then and still do, given the fact that most economists and demographers agree that continued economic growth in this country will require some immigrant labor to fill the low-wage or dead-end jobs that an aging and well-educated U.S. work force does not find attractive.
But just because an idea makes sense doesn't mean Congress will quickly enact it. This is the case here, given how complex and contentious debates over immigration policy are, and how the last immigration reform measure signed by a Republican president worked out for the GOP.
That's why the word "amnesty" stirs up so much emotion. When Latinos and immigrant-rights activists use the word, they usually are referring to a specific program: the legalization provisions in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act signed into law by President Reagan. That amnesty was designed to make an otherwise restrictionist law -- making it illegal to hire undocumented workers and increasing the size and budget of the Border Patrol among other things -- palatable to Latinos and, more important, to liberals in Congress.
That 1986 immigration reform did not appreciably slow the illegal entry of foreign workers. But the amnesty worked remarkably well -- especially from the Democrats' perspective. More than 2 million illegal immigrants (and another 1 million farmworkers under a special provision to help agribusiness) came out of the shadows. Thousands became U.S. citizens.
And therein lies the problem for many Republicans. Most of the Latinos who became citizens tend to vote for Democrats. They do so less out of ideological conviction than because they were naturalized in the 1990s and vividly remember prominent Republicans (but not then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush) supporting anti-immigrant measures like California's Proposition 187. It is no exaggeration to say many of these new Latino voters were frightened into becoming citizens by GOP demagogues. Their main goal was to work here, not necessarily to become citizens.
That is why many Republicans, including key members of Congress, are dubious about another immigration reform. A few buy the nativist argument that immigrants somehow undermine American culture, but most are just worried about creating lots of new Democrats. Some of Bush's GOP critics are using the word "amnesty" to refer to any step, however modest, that gives illegal immigrants some legal status, and they are blasting his guest worker proposal as a result. Bush was trying to placate them when he declared, "I oppose amnesty," but it's unclear whether he succeeded.
Yet Latinos should not take that statement as fighting words. After all, there is scant evidence that immigrant workers in this country are clamoring to become U.S. citizens. As former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda often argued, many of his countrymen want to earn money here but then return with their nest eggs to cheaper, quieter lifestyles in rural Mexico. Indeed, that is what most Mexican migrants did from the 1940s -- when the bracero program was created to deal with U.S. labor shortages caused by World War II -- until the 1990s, when tougher U.S. border enforcement had the unintended consequence of forcing migrant workers to stay in this country longer, often with their families.
It is only American hubris that leads people in this country, including the Latino activists and ardent restrictionists on the extremes of the immigration debate, to assume all Mexican migrants want to stay here and become U.S. citizens. Those who do should be given a fair chance. But history has shown that even those who don't can contribute to the U.S. economy. The best thing about Bush's guest worker idea is that it gives them the chance to do so legally and safely. Latino activists, at least, should be willing to seriously consider any plan that does that.
Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.