President Bush showed up empty-handed in Mexico last week, having failed to fulfill last year's promise to President Vicente Fox that the United States would work toward less punitive treatment of Mexican immigrants. It wasn't for lack of trying. Despite pressuring lawmakers to permit certain illegal immigrants to remain in the United States while applying for green cards, Bush was thwarted by an unexpected Democratic foe, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. And though Byrd's rhetoric suggested he was concerned with security in the post-9/11 world, his actions have led to speculation about more unsavory motives.

The measure in question passed the Republican-controlled House as part of a border-security package, but scheduling conflicts and Byrd's opposition have kept it locked up in the Senate. Beyond its homeland-security provisions, the bill would allow illegal immigrants married to a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident -- or who work for a U.S. employer -- to pay a $1,000 fine and remain in the United States while applying for legal status. Under current law, these immigrants must return to their homelands to apply, and have sometimes been forced to wait up to 16 years for approval, according to Solange Bitol, senior legislative advocate for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Byrd protested the bill as "sheer lunacy," citing September 11-type concerns as ample evidence that the measure "poses a dangerous risk to our border security."; He's also argued that the necessary FBI and CIA background checks on applicants under Bush's proposal would overtax U.S. systems. But others have speculated that more than security worries are holding Byrd up. "Behind the scenes, there's discussion about the senator not supporting a variety of immigrant issues, from helping legal permanent residents put out of their jobs at airports to [this most current example]," Bitol commented.

Byrd's blocking action has certainly stymied the Bush administration. But it's a far more serious blow to his own Democratic Party, which is trying to appear more immigrant-friendly than Bush. At stake is the electoral allegiance of the nation's growing Latino population -- a Democratic bastion that Bush is methodically wooing, thanks to the canny advice of his political guru, Karl Rove. But Byrd seems peculiarly immune to the humanitarian and political impulses that motivate many of his Democratic colleagues.

The reason may be simply regional. Byrd hails from West Virginia, a state tied with Mississippi for the second-lowest percentage of foreign-born individuals, according to the 2000 Census (Montana is first). Yet even lawmakers from states whose economies are not dependent on immigrant labor should back the Bush legislation, given the vast number of already employed illegal immigrants in the United States. Of the eight million total illegals in this country, approximately five million have jobs, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Sixty percent come from Mexico, and another 20 percent are from other Central American countries.

As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd finds himself well placed to stymie the immigration measure, although Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office is working with him to hammer out compromises before the Senate meets on the measure in April. And given Byrd's checkered racial past -- in his youth the 84-year-old belonged to the Ku Klux Klan (though he's said he's long regretted it), and he got into a spat last year for repeatedly using the word "nigger" in an interview -- that's a good thing. An end to the current blocking action would certainly help clear up some negative impressions and aid the Democratic Party politically -- whether or not it does anything for West Virginia.

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