In his June 9 national radio address, President Bush strongly endorsed the “Grand Bargain” immigration bill, S 1348, that stalled in the Senate, June 7, when just 45 of a necessary 60 senators were ready to bring the issue to a vote after two weeks of debate.
Expressing hope the bill would be revived, Bush added, “Like many senators, I believe the bill will need to be further improved.”
What kind of “improvements” Bush is after, and what he gets, will be critical to whether the bill, or a close version of it, becomes law. The question is: How far to the right can Bush help shepherd the bill through the Senate and House?
Bush is clearly working to get something passed. On June 11, he told the press, “I’ll see you at the signing.” For only the second time in his tenure, he will go to Capitol Hill to lobby.
With 41 of the Senate’s 48 Republican senators refusing to come to a vote on the Grand Bargain, the changes Bush seeks will no doubt try to address their demands — embodied in their slogans “no amnesty” and “temporary means temporary” — for a narrower bill that effectively blocks a path to permanent residency for currently undocumented workers and future immigrants.
In the push to reopen debate and pass the law, the White House web site features “fact sheets” that stress the bill’s punitive, restrictive measures, and emphasizes how, under its provisions, immigrants will pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits.
Bush and the Republican senators are basically united on the issue of temporary or “guest worker” programs. In a May 23 vote on whether to eliminate the guest worker provisions, only two Republicans voted yes. In a June 6 vote to “sunset” the temporary worker program, i.e. to have it expire and require a re-vote in five years, 36 of 47 Republicans voted no.
It was only after the sunset provisions were pushed through by the Democratic leadership that Republican opposition to voting on the whole bill was strong enough to decisively prevail. Part of Bush’s work to “improve” the bill likely will be to work to expand the guest worker provisions.
Bush and the Republican senators are also substantially in agreement on prioritizing business needs over family reunification. The Republican senators strongly criticize family reunification measures under which permanent resident and naturalized immigrants can sponsor close relatives for permanent residency, calling them a form of “chain migration.”
Although Bush does not endorse eliminating family reunification entirely, the White House web site stresses the Senate bill “will not increase chain migration.” Weakening family reunification is one way Bush could win Republican senators’ votes.
The most challenging area for Bush is dealing with the issue of a path to permanent residency and citizenship.
Last year there were enough Republican votes to pass an immigration bill with a path to citizenship, but that bill excluded all undocumented people who had been in the U.S. for two years or less, relegating them instead to temporary worker programs. The current bill would make all those who had immigrated prior to Jan. 1, 2007, eligible to apply for legalization.
Eliminating a path to legalization would cause the bill to lose Democratic support. The flawed essence of a possible compromise is the exchange of a path to citizenship for expanded temporary worker programs and more visas for high-tech workers. No matter what, Bush will likely explore ways to make full legalization more difficult.
Many Republican senators will push hard to make the bill more restrictive and punitive, and work with Bush in a “good cop, bad cop” scenario. Many will not work with Bush: 21 of the 47 Republican senators are up for election, and racist, anti-immigrant demagoguery is part of their strategy for a big right-wing turnout.
Meanwhile labor, civil and immigrant rights groups, Latino and other large immigrant communities, and religious groups find much of the bill’s right-wing features unacceptable and are opposing it.
President John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO, which advocates a path to permanent residency citizenship and strong family reunification measures, said, “With the support of the immigrant rights community, we will continue to pursue an immigration plan that places workers’ rights at the forefront and removes economic incentives for exploitation.”