Bush’s Gambit for Votes of Hispanics Fizzles
Immigration Proposal Is Victim of Presidential Inattention And Resistance in Both Parties
Jackie Calmes, Wall Street Journal, Mar. 10
WASHINGTON — Two months after President Bush announced at a festive White House ceremony his initiative to offer guest-worker visas to millions of undocumented workers, the proposal lies buried on Capitol Hill — and with it, perhaps, his hopes for more Hispanic votes.
The plan has become a lightning rod both for conservative Republicans, who lament that it would reward lawbreaking foreigners, and for Democrats, who complain it wouldn’t go far enough to help hardworking immigrants become Americans. But it also is a victim of presidential inattention, as even some allies contend. Immigration-overhaul plans “are not going to move without presidential leadership and some expenditure of his political capital,” says Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican. “And so far, we haven’t seen that.”
Historically, immigration has been among the most controversial topics a president and Congress can tackle, all the more so in an election year in which lost jobs are a cutting issue. Under Mr. Bush’s proposal, three-year guest-worker visas would be available for foreign workers already here illegally and for those who want to come and already have a job lined up. Workers could renew the visas for another three years. Then they would have to return home.
Unlike other immigration proposals, such as Mr. Hagel’s more comprehensive package with Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, or a bill from Republican Sen. John McCain, the Bush plan doesn’t provide a “path to citizenship” for guest workers.
With that omission, Mr. Bush hoped to assuage his right wing. He didn’t.
Republicans say the White House underestimated the issue’s unpopularity among conservatives. “You should never, ever, ever reward people for breaking the law,” says Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado. “And no matter how many times the president says it’s not amnesty, that’s exactly what it is.” Only record federal spending has riled grassroots activists more, Republicans say. The result is unexpected unrest in his base that Mr. Bush now seeks to appease — for example, by calling for a constitutional amendment against gay marriage.
Meanwhile, the plan’s failure to give workers a chance to earn citizenship alienated Hispanic groups that had hoped to support Mr. Bush. Moreover, says Larry Gonzalez, director of the Washington office of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, groups such as his see no sign that the White House has even looked for a sponsor in Congress for its plan.
The president’s lack of follow-through on immigration also has emboldened Democrats. From the start, they derided Mr. Bush’s proposal as a bid for Hispanic votes that he never intended to press, and a gesture to burnish his “compassionate conservatism.”
The impasse clouded last week’s visit at his ranch between Mr. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, who has waited since Mr. Bush took office for some liberalization of U.S. border policy, only to have the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks complicate an already contentious issue. To a Mexican reporter’s question on Saturday about the plan’s prospects, Mr. Bush said, “There’s no telling what’s going to happen in an election year.” But Republican leaders in Congress have made it plain to the White House that the issue won’t come to a vote this year.
“I am disappointed that we are not going to address this issue,” says Arizona’s Sen. McCain. “In the meantime, hundreds more will die in the deserts of Arizona to get to a place where they can work, the nation will face hundreds of millions of dollars more in health-care costs, and we will still have up to 15 million people living in the United States without any rights or protections of our laws.”
At a minimum, inaction has left Mr. Bush’s standing with Hispanics no better than before.
In 2000, Mr. Bush won 31% of Hispanic votes to Democrat Al Gore’s 67%, the best showing for a Republican since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election. The president had hoped to improve upon that, and before this year seemed to be making progress. But in a national poll of Hispanics taken several weeks after his Jan. 7 immigration speech, only 30% of registered Hispanic voters said they supported his re-election, and 51% said they would vote for a Democrat.
Pollster Sergio Bendixen says demographics explain the importance of immigration policy. Today, fully half of Hispanic voters are immigrants. Just 15 years ago, before influxes from Mexico and Central and South America, only one of five were foreign-born.
While about 13% of Americans are Hispanic, they accounted for just 4% of voters in 2000. Still, they are more numerous in some swing states, such as Florida, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.
Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd contends that Mr. Bush would get as much as 42% of Hispanic votes if the election were today. He says that Hispanic voters mostly care about the same issues as Americans generally — the economy and war. As for the impact of the immigration initiative, he says, “I don’t think they’ve heard enough about it for it to register one way or the other.”
But Mr. Bendixen counters that “we’ve seen some slippage” from past upticks in support for the president. A May 2002 poll that he conducted had Mr. Bush essentially even with a nameless Democrat among Hispanic voters, with 46% for a Democrat and 44% for Mr. Bush. But in a May 2003 poll, Mr. Bush trailed, 48% to 34%. The late January poll, which had a three percentage-point margin of error, showed Mr. Bush with just the 30% level.
Mr. Bendixen says Mr. Bush had real potential for inroads among Hispanics, given his “tremendous personal popularity and charisma,” his early rapport with Mr. Fox, his pro-immigrant rhetoric and his promise of liberalized immigration. The pollster suggests Mr. Bush’s slippage could be the result in part of “a feeling he hadn’t kept his promise.”
In his poll, which was conducted for New California Media, an organization of ethnic media outlets, nearly three-quarters of Hispanics — including registered and unregistered voters and illegals — said they had heard of Mr. Bush’s initiative. Of those, 42% favored it, 20% were opposed, and the rest had no opinion. But when respondents were reminded of details of the proposal — in particular, that most workers ultimately would have to return to their native countries — opposition climbed, leaving a 45%-45% split.
Even more problematic for the president: By a 2-to-1 margin, respondents agreed with the statement, “President Bush does not care about immigrants,” but “is only interested in getting Latino voters to support him in the 2004 election.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Bendixen & Associates poll is online at:https://news.ncmonline.com/news/view_article.html?article_id=f9e0a30c7b390794b6469f6e10fcd1db