Chambliss: Hope yet for immigration

LAWRENCEVILLE - The Bush administration is moving away from its previous support for providing illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss said Wednesday.

While Chambliss, R-Ga., welcomes the tougher stand being taken by the president, Democrats and Latino activists are calling it a step backward.

During the last congressional term, Bush joined then-minority Democrats in backing comprehensive legislation in the Senate that would have established a multi-year process for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in this country to become U.S. citizens.

But they couldn't get the bill through the Republican-controlled House, where the emphasis was on tougher enforcement measures.

When Democrats captured control of Congress last fall, it appeared to pave the way for the pathway-to-citizenship approach.

Indeed, a comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced into the House last month by Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., drew support from Latino groups.

But last week, the Bush administration circulated talking points from a series of meetings between senior White House officials and Republican senators.

Besides closing off any avenue for citizenship for illegal immigrants, the document also promised higher fees for guest workers to remain in this country.

Chambliss said the president's stand now is much closer to where Chambliss always has been on the issue.

"Any form of amnesty is something I can't agree with," he said.

Chambliss said he particularly likes the "touchback" component of the Bush plan, which would require temporary workers to return to their home countries every two years and remain there for at least six months.

"We need a touchback system," the senator said. "Then, you can come back under a legal program if you have an employer and aren't taking a job from an American."

But critics say Bush is advancing an unrealistic proposal for political gain.

"This is not a serious attempt to come to a solution," said Eric Gutierrez, a legislative staff lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "It's political."

Gutierrez said one of the most objectionable provisions in the White House plan is that even immigrants who have established legal permanent residence in the U.S. would not have the right to sponsor their relatives to join them.

"There's no way for a worker to bring his or her family to the United States," he said. "It's always been a fundamental policy of U.S. immigration law to reunite families."

Senate Democrats might be expected to oppose any legislation that doesn't establish a clear path to citizenship for those illegal immigrants who are already here.

But Chambliss said he believes the new majority party's leader on the immigration issue in the Senate, Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, may be in a mood to cut a deal.

"Kennedy wants to get a bill done," Chambliss said. "He understands that compromises have to be made."