The Miami Herald
October 17, 2000

Candidate platforms avoid tough immigration issues

This is second in a series of stories that will examine issues of the presidential campaign.


 A strong economy and a shrinking labor pool have made immigrants suddenly
 welcome in America's heartland -- one strong reason why complex immigration
 issues have barely surfaced in the presidential campaign.

 There also is no mention in the candidates' platforms of topics hotly debated in
 South Florida, such as the controversial ``wet foot, dry foot'' provision in the Cuban
 Adjustment Act. That Clinton administration policy enables Cubans who make it
 to land to stay here, but is perceived as an inequity by Haitians and other
 migrants who, if apprehended, are usually deported.

 ``Immigration is a nonissue,'' says James E. Garcia, editor of Politico, an
 influential online magazine for Hispanics. ``People around the country say Latin
 Americans and Asian workers are an essential part of the economy, and the last
 thing on their minds are Haitians.''

 It is not as if George W. Bush and Al Gore do not have first-hand knowledge of
 immigration issues, or lack sensitivity, experts and Hispanic leaders say. If there
 is a difference, it is that Bush supports legal immigration like Gore, but the vice
 president appears to be willing to help legalize the status of some undocumented

 The Texas governor speaks passable Spanish, comes from a border state where
 immigration policy is hotly debated, enjoys a close relationship with influential
 citizens in Mexico, and has Mexican-American family members.

 According to Hispanic leaders, Bush has caused the Republican Party --
 traditionally less friendly to immigrants, supportive of English-only legislation, and
 critical of extending welfare and healthcare aid to migrants -- to be essentially
 neutral on immigration issues, because he is courting Latino votes.

 But he has also remained silent on issues of great concern to Hispanic advocacy
 groups, such as the increasing militarization of the Southwest border with
 Mexico. His suggestions for reform in immigration matters often are not backed
 up by specific details.

 Gabriela Lemus, Washington-based policy director for the League of United Latin
 American Citizens -- the nation's largest and oldest Hispanic grass-roots
 organization -- said Bush has not responded to a request from the organization in
 early September for comment on its legislative platform.

 The Gore-Lieberman campaign, by contrast, responded in four weeks ``in some
 cases in far greater detail than we outlined in our own platform.'' Lemus said she
 interprets Bush's lack of a response to what she said is the candidate's lack of
 specifics on immigration issues.

 Gore has offered backing for four pieces of immigration-related legislation pending
 before Congress, and he is opposed to a GOP-backed bill that would create an
 agriculture-related guest worker program because it does not provide for housing
 and other benefits.

 But like Bush, Gore has talked about the need to seal the United States against
 illegal migration, and has backed the administration's drive to build border fences
 and vastly boost the number of INS enforcement agents.

 On the ``wet foot, dry foot'' topic, the vice president has a position, even if he has
 not spelled it out in his literature.

 Liz Lubow, his Florida press secretary, said, ``Al Gore supports the current policy
 as a reasonable balance that respects both the unique circumstances that drive
 people to leave a communist dictatorship, and a need for fair immigration laws,''
 which protect the United States from illegal migration.

 Bush may not have spelled out his position, but he told The Herald in an interview
 in September ``I wouldn't change the policy.'' He said, however, ``I don't know all
 the arguments.''

 Miami immigration lawyer Luis Nuñez said Bush and Gore are probably more
 alike on immigration issues than any two presidential candidates in history.

 Their campaign platform positions are similar on many immigration-related
 matters, he said, including making the Immigration and Naturalization Service
 more customer friendly, boosting the number of H-1B visas issued to technically
 skilled foreigners, and keeping migrant families together instead of deporting them
 while their applications are being processed.

 ``The only issue left,'' he said, ``is, will the candidates deliver?''

 One point of divergence is the structure of the INS.

 While both candidates say they favor reforming the agency, Bush says he would
 split the INS into two agencies run by a single associate attorney general. One
 would be service oriented and handle matters such as visas and naturalization;
 the other would handle enforcement of immigration laws. Gore says he favors
 streamlined bureaucracy, not more.

 ``Dividing the INS is just an idea,'' said LULAC's Lemus, doubtfully. ``It's not a new
 one, and he didn't say what his plan was'' when he proposed it at LULAC's
 national convention.

 Dag Vega, deputy spokesman for the Gore-Lieberman campaign, says there are
 other immigration topics that set Gore and Bush apart, even if they have not
 surfaced as important campaign issues.

 He cited the vice president's support for amending the NACARA Act of 1997 --
 which permitted Nicaraguans and Cubans to gain permanent residence if they
 lived in the U.S. continuously since Dec. 1, 1995 -- to include Haitians and

 ``There were many Central Americans and Haitians who fled human rights abuses
 or untenable conditions who found themselves treated differently,'' Vega said.
 ``[Gore] feels he should correct this long-standing injustice.''

 Politico's Garcia said Bush comes from a state ``where it would be suicidal to
 have an anti-immigrant policy and attempt to run for office.''

 The governor's relative tolerance of immigrants sets him apart from other GOP
 leaders, he said. In Texas, in contrast to California and Florida, ``there are an
 enormous number of public officials who are Hispanic. But that's been a trend for
 two decades.''

 Bush early on decided ``You can't bash immigrants . . . His positions on
 immigration are essentially the same as the Clinton administration. That's both
 good and bad: If you talk to immigration advocates, they are not happy with the
 Clinton administration.''

 He said Gore has missed an opportunity to attack his opponent on his lack of a
 stand against ``locking down the border at McAllen, Texas.'' But then, he said,
 both candidates have made it clear that they favor taking strong measures to
 secure the border, and both have said the idea of an open border proposed to
 them recently by Mexico president-elect Vicente Fox is a bad idea.

 Cecila Muñoz, Washington-based immigration policy advisor to the National
 Council for La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic organization, said the governor
 has opposed extending some poverty program benefits to immigrant children.

 She said an endorsement by Bush of pending legislation favored by the council,
 and many Hispanic leaders, is missing, and that troubles her.