WASHINGTON—Republicans who want to slow immigration to the United States and crack down on illegal immigrants believe they are gaining political strength and public backing, which may pose a problem next year for President Bush.
Bush has already signaled his intention to push a major proposal to allow some of the estimated 8 million to 10 million illegal immigrants in the country to gain legal work visas for up to six years as part of a “guest worker” program.
But he may face growing anti-immigrant sentiment, not only his own party but in the country at large, several opponents claimed.
“Public opinion is unquestionably on our side,” said Paul Egan of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington group that seeks to limit legal migration and strengthen U.S. borders.
“Americans are saying ‘no’ to Bush’s guest worker program and ‘no’ to amnesty for illegal immigrants. Legislators are beginning to get the message that people are fed up of illegal immigration,” Egan added.
Led by powerful Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, anti-immigration conservatives recently defied the White House by insisting that a bill to reform the nation’s intelligence services include anti-illegal alien provisions.
They want to prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining drivers licenses and withdraw recognition of ID cards issued by Latin American embassies.
These legislators also intend to try to block implementation of a recent U.S. agreement with Mexico to allow workers who have divided their working lives between the two countries to gain retirement benefits based on the combined credits earned from both countries.
The United States has similar agreements with 20 other countries. Bush must submit the agreement to the U.S. Congress, which has 60 days to block it, otherwise it takes effect.
A congressional immigration reform caucus led by Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo had 72 members in the outgoing House committed to a program of cracking down on illegal aliens and restricting immigration.
“Sentiment has shifted dramatically in our favor over the past several years and even more in the past few months,” Tancredo told Reuters. “We have a significant majority in our (Republican) conference and upward of 175 to 180 members of the House pretty much committed.”
Angela Kelley of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant group, said Tancredo was exaggerating his support but conceded probably one third of the House was behind him.
Tancredo predicted “very rough sledding” for Bush’s guest worker proposal, but said it was possible to get it enacted if the president expended a lot of political capital.
Immigration law expert Victor Romero of Penn State University believed the United States may be entering one of its periodic anti-immigration phases.
“History tells us this is cyclical and we may be seeing the front end of a cycle that suggests a more anti-immigration mood,” he said.
Romero and others are concerned about some reports from around the country, including New York’s Long Island, California and Virginia, of citizens expressing hostility to Hispanic day laborers, many in the country illegally.
Some public opinion polls in the past year show many Americans would like to see slower immigration. Only 16 percent in a CBS/New York Times poll last January said legal immigration to the United States should be increased; 45 percent said it should be lowered, and another third said it should stay at its current level.