Green Light, Red Light

See the Sidebar: Immigrants on Campus by Natasha Hunter

Maybe the best measure of the deteriorating prospects for fundamental immigration reform after the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon came at a congressional hearing on, of all things, airport security. Amid the debate over arming pilots, deploying sky marshals on commercial flights, or turning over airport security to the federal government, Republican Congressman Harold Rogers of Kentucky had another concern. Why, he wondered, was there no requirement that the men and women who monitor the checkpoints screening passengers hold American citizenship?

How remarkable is that thought? Today even the U.S. military doesn't require soldiers to be citizens. It accepts immigrants who are permanent legal residents--that is, those who have obtained a green card and are allowed to remain in the United States indefinitely. But to Rogers, that didn't seem a tight enough standard for luggage screeners.

Rogers's question captured the sudden, lurching, shift in Washington's attitude toward immigrants and immigration reform. Until the September 11 attacks, the forces appeared to be aligning for a grand bargain between business and labor, Democrats and Republicans, that would allow undocumented immigrants to work legally in the United States and guestworkers to migrate freely and openly into America. Now, open borders appear about as attractive as open cockpits. Across party lines, Washington's principal immigration concern has understandably become preventing terrorists from slipping into the country. Indeed, Rogers's question suggested a new level of suspicion aimed even at immigrants who are here legally but have not yet gone through the process to become full-fledged citizens--a group also targeted by some of the administration's post-attack proposals to allow indefinite detention of suspected terrorists. That's hardly the political climate in which to discuss legalizing large numbers of people who entered the United States illegally. "The option is just completely out of the room right now," says one Senate Democratic leadership aide. "Progressive immigration policy is just another casualty of the attacks of September 11."

In the short run, that's undeniable. Adding to the burden created by the attacks, reform advocates have been hurt by the slowdown in the economy. That's sapped the principal political engine for a new approach to immigration: the fears of a labor shortage among American service industries like hotels and restaurants. "Short-term, the pressure has disappeared for the most part," says John Gay, co-chairman of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a business group that supports reform. "When you are talking about laying people off, there is no worker shortage."

Yet for all of these immediate obstacles, the long-term dynamics encouraging a new approach to immigration remain in place. Once the economy revives, business's demand for new workers will also recover--and with it the demand for some sort of guestworker program. "The long-term demographics haven't changed--the aging of the workforce, the need for more people to come in," says Gay. That hunger for new workers has made business groups like Gay's more willing to consider favorably the basic labor protections that Democrats and the unions would demand in any guestworker program. Led by service-sector unions like the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International, organized labor remains committed to legalization because it has come to see new immigrants less as a threat to American jobs than as a current and potential source of new members. The rapidly growing number of Hispanic migrants in the pews ensures that the Catholic Church will continue to push for legalization. And the enormous increase in the Hispanic population means that politicians in both parties--starting with President Bush--will continue to search for initiatives that can appeal to that community. Indeed, on several occasions since the attacks, administration officials have insisted that Bush still wants to advance sweeping immigration reform. "The president is still committed to honoring his promise to work with . . . [Mexican President Vicente] Fox on immigration changes," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters several days after the September calamity. Other officials say staff-level negotiations over a reform plan continue with Mexico.

But it's clear that if immigration reform happens at all, it will occur later than it would have without the attacks. And it's likely to be more narrowly targeted and more focused on security. Above all, it's virtually certain to be more heavily shaped by Bush's preferences than it would have been without the tragedy. "Bush has to be the guy who leads us there," says Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant-advocacy group. "Because it can't be the advocacy community saying, 'Forget what happened in New York.'"

Seen through the dust and debris, the shock and horror, of September 11, Fox's recent visit to the United States now seems as if it occurred in another lifetime. But in fact, Fox left Washington less than a week before the hijackers struck. And when he addressed Congress in a joint session, he had been received almost as enthusiastically as Bush was in his congressional address nine days after the attacks.

Fox's visit provided a badly needed burst of momentum to the immigration-reform movement. The immigration debate had been jump-started this summer, when participants in negotiations between the United States and Mexico had leaked reports that the two nations were considering the most ambitious changes in U.S. immigration laws since the amnesty signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. According to the initial accounts, the two sides were weighing a grand bargain that would create a guestworker program to import new employees for American businesses, along with a system that would allow millions of Mexicans already working in the United States illegally to move toward legal status over a period of years--a process known as "earned legalization."

Almost immediately, though, the administration began to backpedal. Under fire from conservatives who considered any legalization plan a "reward for lawbreakers," administration officials began to suggest that reform might take years. In his public comments, Bush consistently downplayed the portion of the discussions focused on illegal workers already in the United States while stressing his desire for a new guestworker program: the portion of the package most attractive to Republicans and the business community. "When we find willing employer and willing employee, we ought to match the two," Bush said. "We ought to make it easier for people who want to employ somebody, who are looking for workers, to be able to hire people who want to work."

In terms of timing as well as scope, Fox's visit appeared to put the reform effort back on track. Fox surprised Bush by publicly calling on the United States to reach an agreement with Mexico on migration by year's end; Bush never committed entirely to that goal, but he was forced to say that he would work as quickly as he could. And the final communiqué the two sides released after the visit made clear that the talks would cover not only a plan for future guestworkers but also "the status of undocumented Mexicans in the United States." Indeed, answering questions from reporters with Fox at his side, Bush said for the first time that he was "willing to consider ways for a guestworker to earn green-card status."

Bush's comments acknowledged the underlying political reality of the immigration debate. Since Congress is so closely divided, neither the business community nor organized labor can pass its top immigration priority without concession to the other side. The Democratic Senate, backed by the unions, would surely block any effort simply to create a new guestworker program while denying worker protections to those laborers. The Republican House, backed by business, would just as surely derail any plan focused solely on legalizing illegal immigrants already here. Only a bill that combined both ideas had even a chance of building a coalition broad enough to pass. One senior White House adviser acknowledged as much on the last day of Fox's visit. "There has to be a nexus between temporary workers and a route to a green card," the aide told me. "Otherwise, the temporary-worker program is a dead letter."

But the attacks scrambled the political equation by adding an entirely new concern: domestic security. Investigators have reported that several of the 19 hijackers had overstayed the visas allowing them to enter the United States. Attorney General John Ashcroft later reported that 98 of the first 352 suspects apprehended in the investigation were detained on visa violations. And around the country, airports began to round up dozens of employees with improper immigration papers.

Almost inevitably, the immigration discussion in Washington shifted away from legalizing illegal migrants toward cracking down on them. Although the exact parameters remain under debate, the Justice Department appears certain to receive expanded power to detain even legal immigrants who are suspected of terrorist links. And legislation is pending that would require the federal government and other institutions--particularly colleges and universities--to keep better tabs on temporary residents who overstay their visas. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California thinks that the system for tracking student visas is so fundamentally broken that she's proposed a six-month moratorium on issuing any more.

All of this is casting a huge shadow over the legalization debate. The most common image of an illegal immigrant is someone who crosses the desert from Mexico. But of the roughly eight million undocumented immigrants in the United States, the best estimates suggest that around 40 percent are people who have simply overstayed their visas and never left. With the terrorist strikes, it became instantly implausible that Congress, or for that matter the country, would accept an amnesty plan that allowed many if not most of those visa violators to become legal residents. A national poll conducted after September 11 by John Zogby for the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies captured the changing environment: Three-fourths of Americans said the government wasn't doing enough to control the border, and nearly as many said it should greatly increase the resources it devotes to enforcing immigration laws.

In this climate of increased vigilance and fear, if any immigration reform can be salvaged it's likely to look very different from what it would have otherwise. The most certain outcome is that any future plan will require much more intensive background checks and security clearances for future guestworkers and for illegal immigrants who might be allowed to move toward permanent status. Even with greater security safeguards, many participants privately question whether any plan that would legalize large numbers of illegal immigrants from Arab countries could win majority support any time soon. At the same time, it's hard to imagine Congress approving a plan that excludes only Arab countries from legalization. So the debate might lead back to where Bush preferred it in the first place: a legalization plan initially aimed solely at undocumented migrants from Mexico.

Ever since the administration first began discussing legalization, Democrats have demanded that it be accorded to "all immigrants regardless of country of origin," as the party's congressional leadership wrote in a letter to Bush this summer. Bush seemed to bend to those demands when he said he would consider including "all folks here" in any legalization. But the administration has always seemed most interested in Mexican immigrants, and the attacks by foreign agents from the Middle East might provide a powerful political rationale for reverting to that approach. Some reform advocates now quietly acknowledge that limiting the plan to Mexico would significantly reduce security concerns, whether they center on bringing in new guestworkers or legitimizing the illegal migrants who are already here. Angela Kelley notes that such an arrangement could even be structured as a "North American perimeter agreement" that would enlist greater cooperation from Mexico and Canada in screening for potential terrorists at their borders.

Even a narrower approach won't be easy to move through Congress any time soon. Representatives
of other ethnic groups would surely object. A Mexico-only plan would still face the huge barrier of rising unemployment in this country. And a plan targeted solely toward Mexico would still draw fire as a security risk from those who are skeptical of legalization regardless of any limitations that might apply. Facing all of these new hurdles, even some of reform's staunchest advocates are resigned to waiting longer for action and deferring more to Bush on when and how to proceed. The president still has his own reasons to move forward: a desire to bolster Fox and a need to improve his own strength among Hispanic voters. But it looks as though the terrain of the immigration debate will be utterly reshaped by September's attacks. "You have nine million people here illegally who are contributing to the United States of America and a few hundred here illegally who want to destroy it," says John Gay. "That's a terrible problem to have to figure out a solution to."

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