Bush, GOP in Conundrum over Immigration Politics "Pennsylvania Avenue" offers a window on the issues and politics of Washington's most famous street and the buildings it connects -- the Capitol and the White House. This week: how disagreements with his own party could derail President Bush's legacy on immigration.
NPR logo Bush, GOP in Conundrum over Immigration Politics

Bush, GOP in Conundrum over Immigration Politics

President Bush waxes emotional when he speaks about revamping the nation's immigration laws and giving illegal aliens the chance to work in the United States. He has talked time and time again about how well-versed he is in border issues as a former governor of Texas.

Yet he has failed to fully persuade opponents who are standing in his way of achieving a dream to rewrite immigration law. The striking thing is who his opponents are: Republicans.

Mr. Bush wants provisions in federal law that would allow immigrants residing illegally in the United States to gain temporary work status. His rationale: There are some jobs that Americans are unwilling to fill.

So if illegal aliens are in the country anyway and willing to take those jobs, why not allow them to work and send money home to their families?

The president’s plan would give illegal aliens who can prove they have a job temporary status for three years with an option for renewal.

The plan pleases many Hispanics, who see it as a gateway to a better future. But more than a few conservatives have balked, casting the plan as a reward to those who have broken the current law -– a first step on the road to permanent amnesty. What effect would that have on national security? Does it make sense to make the borders more porous at a time when the government is supposed to be tightening up against potential terrorists?

Mr. Bush has been forced onto uncomfortable terrain, making deals and compromising with members of his own party in an effort to salvage a cherished item on his agenda.

The White House has been forced to support a bill -- pushed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and approved in the House earlier this month –- that prohibits illegal aliens from holding driver's licenses. The president never sounded fond of that idea, but Sensenbrenner made it clear that Mr. Bush's own plan would be dead on arrival unless his got through first.

Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Tom Delay of Texas, usually a close Bush ally, has been insisting that the president amend his plan to require aliens to return to their home country before applying for worker status. While the provision could greatly lessen the appeal of Mr. Bush's plan, he might have no choice but to accept it.

To be sure, Mr. Bush's own party has complicated his second-term agenda on a number of fronts. Some Republicans on Capitol Hill have complained about his proposal to set up personal private investment accounts within Social Security. Others have grumbled about how long it’s taking to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq.

But if Republicans obstruct the president in his bid to rewrite immigration laws, it would be a particularly painful blow to the president and his legacy.

For one thing, the president has made the issue personal. In recalling his Texas roots, he frames the issue as one he has mastered and wants to tackle as president.

"I was the governor of Texas, right there on the front lines of border politics," Mr. Bush said during a December news conference, where he spoke at length about the issue.

"I know what it means to have mothers and fathers come to my state and across the border of my state to work. Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River is what I used to tell the people of my state. People are coming to put food on the table. They're doing jobs Americans will not do. And to me it makes sense for us to recognize that reality."

If he is frustrated publicly by his own party on an issue this dear to him, it could be a colossal embarrassment. On immigration, Mr. Bush showed his hand early, in his first term. Americans know exactly what he wants. If he is unable to get it, there is no place to hide.

But beyond that, there is a political opportunity here that could be lost. Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's political guru, is aiming to build a solid and long-lasting Republican majority in the country. A key component of his plan is to woo more Hispanic-American voters, and the immigration overhaul is critical to that strategy.