On Immigrants, a Great Softening ; in Half a Decade, Policy Goals Have Changed from Crackdown to Extending Residency to Illegal Immigrants

Article excerpt

Washington's fast-moving drive to revamp immigration law reflects a new reality: Anti-immigrant political fervor of the 1990s may have largely disappeared.

The growing clout of the Hispanic vote, plus the spread of immigrant labor throughout all aspects of the US service economy, has seen to that.

Now a Republican president has begun weighing a proposal to allow many workers here illegally to claim permanent resident status. Unions - long bastions of anti-immigrant sentiment - have begun to hum a new, more upbeat tune.

Things have reached the point where four senators from Mexico are scheduled to visit Capitol Hill this week to openly lobby for more lenient treatment of Mexicans who are working here illegally.

"Immigrants are central, important members of American society," says Judith Golub, senior advocate at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "In Washington, there's a broadening recognition of that fact."

In both major US parties, there appears to be a developing consensus that the nation needs a major guest-worker bill this year.

Final form is far from set, of course, but it is likely that any such legislation would allow many immigrants who are already working here to stay, and perhaps to eventually acquire permanent residence.

At issue is how many illegal-immigrant workers would be covered, as well as eligible nationalities.

Last week, an administration task force headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft recommended that the US grant guest-worker status to some 3 million Mexicans currently working illegally. Upon emerging from the shadow economy, these workers would then be eligible to apply for legal residence, and perhaps eventually become citizens.

President Bush's close relationship with his south-of-the-border counterpart, Vicente Fox, has had much to do with his relatively open attitudes toward immigrant regularization. Any proposal is likely to be proferred around the time President Fox arrives in Washington for an official state visit in September.

Others ask, 'Why not us?'

But it's not likely to be limited to Mexicans, the largest group of US illegal-immigrant labor. Thousands of illegals from other nations are working hard here and want regular status, too, noted critics of the administration's task force. Why exclude them?

The White House says it opposes a blanket amnesty. But, bowing to political reality, President Bush said last Thursday that "we'll consider all folks here" when drawing up proposals for some sort of new guest-worker program.

Bush's rhetoric, at the very least, represents a major shift away from the tougher stance many in his party took during the past decade. …