Sacramento Bee, December 17, 2003
By Michael Doyle -- Bee Washington Bureau
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Wednesday, December 17, 2003
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is about to get off the sidelines in an immigration
reform fight shaping up for early next year.
With farmers and farmworker advocates pressing for a Senate vote as early as February,
and big coalitions lobbying extensively behind the scenes, the game plan is already unfolding.
For hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, many of them in California, this could mean
the best chance in years at attaining legal U.S. status.
"I don't think Capitol Hill will necessarily buy what the administration proposes, because
(lawmakers) like to put their own stamp on things," James Ziglar, the Bush administration's
former head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said in an interview Tuesday,
"but it will give some momentum to the issue."
The administration's own immigration details remain a closely held work in progress.
This week, though, President Bush made clear what has been growing increasingly apparent --
that his administration is preparing to fully engage.
"I have constantly said that we need to have an immigration policy that helps match any
willing employer with any willing employee," Bush said Monday. "It makes sense that that
policy go forward. And we're in the process of working that through now so I can make a
recommendation to the Congress."
Bush's comments followed up on earlier hints offered by his subordinates. Homeland Security Secretary
Tom Ridge, speaking in Miami, had also indicated that the government needs to "determine how you
can legalize (the) presence" of existing illegal aliens who contribute to the U.S. work force.
The linkage between employers and employees likewise characterizes ambitious immigration
legislation already introduced in Congress.
Agricultural groups, including the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Fresno-based
Nisei Farmers League, like the bill because it reforms and streamlines the system for bringing
in foreign workers. The United Farm Workers and immigrant groups like the bill because it offers
illegal immigrants now working in agriculture the chance of becoming legal U.S. residents.
"It's all falling into line," said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League. "I really see
positive movement by the administration."
The bill covers illegal immigrants who can prove they've worked in agriculture for 100 days in the
past 18 months. They must agree to keep working in agriculture at least 360 more days over the
next six years.
Eighty-one House members and 50 senators already support the legislation, which backers hope
to move quickly next year before the campaign season renders Congress dysfunctional.
Considerable forces are aligned in support. The Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform,
made up of farming groups, paid Washington lobbyists $180,000 last year to work on the issue,
public records show. The National Council of Agricultural Employers paid the same firm, McGuiness,
Norris & Williams, $40,000 in the first six months of this year.
Nonetheless, the inherent controversies surrounding immigration and the intense partisanship
that dominates Capitol Hill lead some to speculate that next year might primarily be one for further
debate and votes by one but not both houses of Congress.
"The fact that it's a presidential election year will slow down the actual action," said Ziglar, who's
now a visiting law professor at George Washington University.
Ziglar said the biggest problem is likely to come from congressional conservatives, some of whom,
a spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., added, might try to slow down the Senate timetable
so no action is taken in February.
In such a politically delicate area, one agricultural lobbyist speculated that the administration might
wait for the Senate to pass its legislation before weighing in with legislative specifics. Bush might also
highlight the issue in his Jan. 20 State of the Union address, but with explicit details coming later.
That timing, in turn, could build pressure on the other side of Capitol Hill. The House Judiciary Committee
chairman, Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner, has until now showed little enthusiasm for the
immigration reform proposals.