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Jewish World Review May 19, 2002 / 8 Sivan, 5762

Morton Kondracke

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Democrats Have Plan To 'Unmask' GOP To Win Latino Votes | President Bush may have high approval ratings among Hispanics, but Democrats are planning to use his own unfulfilled immigration promises against GOP Congressional candidates this fall.

"Our goal is to unmask the Republicans for trying to run on rhetoric without action," said a top aide to House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).

"Bush may personally be pro-immigration, but his party isn't, and he's deferring to their biases. You can have all the mariachi bands you like, but what counts is action."

Sometime this summer or fall, Democrats plan to introduce a bill embodying Bush's 2001 plan to increase the number of workers entering the country legally and create new opportunities for illegal aliens with clean records to become legal residents and, eventually, U.S. citizens.

Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox agreed in early September to work on such a plan, but it was delayed after the terrorist attacks, probably until next year.

To his credit, Bush has worked to prevent the fear of further terrorism from leading to passage of a wave of anti-immigrant legislation. Pro-immigration groups generally favor the border security bill that Bush signed Tuesday, for instance.

A recent Gallup poll showed that Bush's approval rating among Latino voters, 74 percent, matched his rating in the general population.

Bush lost the Latino vote to Al Gore 67 percent to 31 percent in 2000. An Ipsos-Reid poll released May 7 indicated that 48 percent of Latinos would "definitely" vote for Bush in 2004.

On the other hand, a Zogby poll in April showed that when asked which party they want to control Congress, Latinos favored Democrats by 61 percent to 17 percent, with 21 percent undecided.

The Ipsos-Reid poll showed a smaller Democratic advantage, 50 percent to 38 percent. In 2000, exit polls showed, Hispanics tilted Democratic by a margin of 64 to 35.

Bush's polling expert, Matthew Dowd, says the traditional Democratic advantage is narrowing because Latinos "increasingly see the Republican Party through the lens of Bush as more open and welcoming."

That's what the Democrats intend to keep from happening. According to one party election expert, there are at least five closely contested Congressional races this year - in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Maryland - where the result might hinge on Latino turnout. The Texas Senate race could also be affected.

So, when Bush signed the border security bill, Gephardt said, "Now ... there is no excuse for Republican inaction on comprehensive immigration reform legislation. I hope that the President will prevail on Congressional Republicans to drop their longstanding opposition to responsible reform."

Immigration experts believe that Bush's failure to push the plan he worked out with Fox does have partly to do with fear that Republicans in Congress will reject it and hurt chances of winning more of the prized Latino vote.

One good indication of where Republicans really stand was the March 12 House vote to revive Section 245(i) of the immigration law, allowing undocumented immigrants with family or work sponsors to pay a $1,000 fine and remain in the United States while their visas are processed.

In the absence of renewal, immigrants are required to return to their home countries to await their visas, a period of up to 10 years.

The White House pushed for swift House passage as Bush was on his way to meet Fox in Mexico. GOP leaders pushed it, but the measure only gained the two-thirds vote necessary to pass because Democrats overwhelmingly supported it, not Republicans.

The vote among Democrats was 182-13. Republicans split, 92 in favor and 123 against. Opponents falsely charged that 245(i) constituted an "amnesty," even though it leaves illegal aliens subject to deportation if they are caught prior to approval of their visa application.

Republicans plan to point out that it was a Democrat, Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), who prevented the bill from passing the Senate as part of the border security law.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) has introduced a 245(i) measure that's more generous than the House version, potentially covering hundreds of thousands of immigrants rather than tens of thousands.

The Bush-Fox plan - and the forthcoming Gephardt bill - would offer amnesty to some of the estimated 3.5 million illegal aliens here from Mexico, provided they learn English, hold jobs and pay a fine.

Exactly how broad the amnesty would be depends on how the bills are drafted. The Democratic measure undoubtedly will apply to immigrants from around the world. The administration has talked of it as primarily a pro-Mexico measure.

Amnesty - or "regularization," as it's also called - has support from both the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as many religious groups.

Democrats have benefited before from exposing GOP exclusionism. In 2000, they sponsored a bill, the Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act, that would have granted legal status to 800,000 undocumented aliens.

When Republicans blocked the bill - a move that the Hispanic media widely covered - Bush went from a holding a 5-point polling lead among Latinos to a 16-point deficit. It could happen again.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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