Nearly 35 percent of the illegal aliens captured trying to enter the United States in the 19 days after President Bush proposed a still-pending guest-worker program say they were trying to take advantage of what many saw as amnesty.
According to a confidential Border Patrol report to a Senate committee, 1,000 of 2,881 foreign nationals interviewed by agents after their capture at the U.S.-Mexico border between Jan. 7 and Jan. 26 acknowledged that rumors of an amnesty program—outlined in Mexican press reports and passed on by relatives—had influenced their decision to try to enter the United States illegally.
Mr. Bush’s proposed immigration initiative, formally announced Jan. 7, would allow millions of illegal aliens in the United States to remain in the country as guest workers for renewable three-year periods if they have jobs. The aliens eventually could apply for permanent legal residence.
About 8 million to 12 million illegal aliens, mostly Mexican nationals, are estimated to be in the United States.
Beginning just days after the Bush announcement, the number of illegal aliens caught crossing into this country from Mexico increased dramatically, immigration-enforcement officials said, although the White House painstakingly has denied that the president’s guest-worker proposal offered amnesty—saying, instead, it would give illegal aliens holding jobs in the United States temporary work permits, but they eventually would have to go home.
Outlined as a set of principles and not as specific legislation, the Bush proposal did not prescribe any penalties for those caught entering the country illegally and would allow those here to remain in the United States for an as-yet undetermined number of renewable three-year periods.
The Border Patrol report said 66,472 illegal aliens were apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border during that 19-day period, about 3,500 a day. The January 2004 total is more than 11 percent higher than the number of apprehensions reported in January 2003, according to patrol records.
The report said questionnaires were given to field intelligence agents to interview apprehended aliens on a random basis to determine their “perception of the proposed temporary guest-worker program.” The questionnaire used the word “amnesty” because of the widespread reporting in the Mexican press referring to the proposed program as an offer of amnesty, the report said.
The questionnaire was canceled Jan. 26 after its public disclosure. The report said Border Patrol officials determined that the questionnaire’s integrity had been compromised by the press coverage.
The Border Patrol has denied that the questionnaire was politically motivated or intended to imply that Mr. Bush was calling for a general amnesty, saying, instead, that the agency routinely develops questionnaires to request information from field offices on a variety of issues.
“This practice is critical to providing the Border Patrol with a comprehensive understanding of the border environment,” the report said. “The collection of this type of information is an essential tool that enables decision-makers to develop plans and operations specifically designed to counter threats or issues that the questionnaire identifies or confirms.”
The National Border Patrol Council, which represents the agency’s 10,000 nonsupervisory agents, said apprehension totals increased threefold in the San Diego area alone, adding that the majority of aliens detained along the border in January told arresting agents that they had come to the United States seeking amnesty.
Most of those arrested and eventually deported had no history of immigration violations, the council said.
The council has told its members to challenge the guest-worker proposal, calling it a “slap in the face to anyone who has ever tried to enforce the immigration laws of the United States.”
Congress approved an amnesty program in 1986 that gave legal status to 2.7 million illegal aliens.
A CBS News/New York Times poll in January 2004 said no issue upset the public more than Mr. Bush’s amnesty/guest-worker proposal, with only one-third of Americans supporting him. And a CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll that same month said 74 percent of respondents thought the United States should not make it easier for illegal aliens to become U.S. citizens.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, had asked Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to explain whether “rumors of amnesty” concerning the Bush proposal had played any role in attempts by illegal aliens to cross the border.
Mr. Grassley told Mr. Ridge in a letter that he was concerned that illegal aliens were risking their lives and putting their futures in the hands of corrupt alien smugglers in an attempt to gain entry to the United States.