Los Angeles Times
July 17, 2004

Bush Is Taken to Task on Immigration

President has failed to deliver on reform, labor and Latino groups say. White House foiled bid to assist farm workers, congressional aides say.

By Elizabeth Shogren
Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON President Bush calls America "the nation of the open door" and promotes immigration reform, a theme with great appeal for Latino voters. But immigrant and labor organizers said Friday that Bush showed himself to be all talk and no action when he recently helped quash a Republican-sponsored bill to provide farm laborers legal status.

Last week, the White House asked Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) not to offer an amendment that would pave the way for half a million undocumented farm laborers to earn the right to legal status by working in the fields, according to Craig spokesman Dan Whiting.

"They had a real opportunity to make that rhetoric real and they actively worked to deny immigrants an opportunity to come out of the shadows," said Maria Echaveste, Washington representative for the United Farm Workers of America.

Craig ignored the White House appeal and tried to offer the amendment, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) blocked all amendments from being added to the underlying bill, which was designed to restrict class-action lawsuits.

In private negotiations with Democrats, Frist offered to allow debate on other unrelated amendments, including one to raise the minimum wage, Senate aides said. But he would not allow Craig's amendment, they said. The class-action bill was tabled when no agreement was reached.

Republican and Democratic congressional aides said the White House applied pressure to prevent a vote on Craig's bill, which was supported by 63 senators including 27 Republicans. They said White House officials were trying to avoid antagonizing the anti-immigrant faction of the Republican base, which was outraged when Bush announced his own immigration reform plan in January.

"When they came out with their immigration proposal at the beginning of this year, they seemed to take a lot of heat from members of our caucus, so they were a little gun-shy about this particular piece of legislation," said one Republican aide who spoke on the condition that he not be named.

A couple of Republican senators who ardently opposed the bill had vowed to slow debate on the class-action bill if the immigration amendment were offered, Republican Senate aides said.

Craig said he was "extremely disappointed" by the way he said he was steamrolled by the leaders of his party. "This is a bill whose time has come," he said. "It deals with immigration and it deals with a near-crisis in American agriculture."

About 80% of the nation's farm workers are undocumented immigrants, Craig said.

Immigrant and labor advocates who had been pushing hard for the bill said its fate showed that Bush and the Republican congressional leadership talk about immigration changes to woo Latino votes, but do not follow through. Immigrant voters, they said, would not be fooled.

"Immigrants are going to take to heart that American axiom: Don't listen to what they say, watch what they do," said Arturo S. Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers of America.

Rodriguez said it was ironic that the White House worked to kill Craig's amendment one day before Bush told the League of United Latin American Citizens that "America is the nation of the open door, and it must remain that way."

Addressing the group via satellite, Bush said that the economy generated jobs that were not filled by American citizens, but U.S. law gave foreign workers no legal way to fill those jobs.

"Current law says to those workers, 'You must live in a massive, undocumented economy,' " Bush told the group meeting in San Antonio. "This system isn't fair and it's not right."

White House spokeswoman Erin Healy would not specifically comment on whether White House officials urged Craig not to offer his bill or influenced Frist to block it.

However, she said, there were "important differences between the president's principles" and Craig's bill.

The bill would grant farm workers temporary resident status if they could demonstrate that they had worked 100 days or more in a 12-month period, and permanent resident status if they worked at least 360 days in agriculture over the next six years.

"The president has said on a number of occasions that he doesn't want to place undocumented workers on a path to citizenship," Healy said.

Although no legislation has worked its way though Congress that matches Bush's priorities, "the president very much wants to establish a comprehensive reform to immigration laws, one that will benefit temporary workers," Healy said.