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Immigration Delays Could Cost Bush Latino Votes in 2004

If the 2004 election is another squeaker, President Bush could lose it by failing to follow through on his promise to help undocumented Hispanic immigrants gain legal status. [IMGCAP(1)]

Polls indicate that Latino voters regard immigration as a litmus test issue — the way blacks do civil rights, one expert said — and Bush shows signs of losing once-promising support.

Meantime, Democratic presidential candidates and Members of Congress — with some assistance from Republicans — are moving to seize the immigration issue that Bush so far has dropped.

Bush can recoup — and some GOP strategists say he must — by showing renewed interest (or even taking leadership) in helping illegal immigrants become legalized and securing U.S. borders at the same time.

Bush carried 35 percent of the Latino vote in 2000 after a vigorous outreach effort (and frequently speaking Spanish on the stump), 9 percent more than GOP candidate Bob Dole got in 1996.

On Sept. 6, 2001, with Mexican President Vicente Fox by his side, he said, “There are many in our country who are undocumented and we want to make sure their work is legal.”

But after terrorists struck five days later, homeland security concerns put a freeze on Bush’s plans and then relations with Fox soured because Mexico opposed the Iraq war. Both immigration and U.S. policy toward Latin America get constant coverage on Spanish-language television.

So, this August, a New York Times/CBS poll showed that only 21 percent of Latinos would vote for Bush. And a poll for the GOP Latino Coalition showed that a generic Democrat would beat Bush by 49 percent to 30 percent in that community.

The latest bipartisan Battleground survey showed that, of all demographic groups, Latinos formed Bush’s largest “dropoff rate” — a 15-point difference between his personal approval rate of 61 percent and his job performance of 46 percent.

The falloff has hurt the GOP as well. In 2000, Republican Congressional candidates won 34 percent of the Latino vote, according to exit polls. In 2002, it was 35 percent.

But in the August Latino Coalition poll, registered voters said they’d vote Democratic by a margin of 55 percent to 25 percent.

All this is in spite of findings that 35 percent of Latinos defined themselves as “conservative” and only 22 percent as “liberal,” and — by a whopping 53 percent to 7 percent — they said that lowering taxes was a better way to grow the economy than raising taxes.

Conducted by the GOP firm McLaughlin and Associates, the poll found that 86.7 percent of Latinos favored a policy allowing the federal government to “normalize the status of illegal workers in this country” provided they have a clean record.

Moreover, 90.8 percent said it was “important” — and 74.8 percent “very important” — that U.S. immigration laws be reformed to “reduce illegal immigration by promoting a system which increases the legal flow of workers into this country.”

The leading Democratic presidential candidates are all in favor of plans to legalize undocumented immigrants with clean records, increase the number of work permits and visas, and reach an agreement with Mexico to strengthen border security.

In Congress, several bills have been introduced — or will be — to liberalize immigration rules. The most generous is a forthcoming measure being worked out by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) allowing immigrants who have been in the country for five years, paid taxes for three and taken English instruction to get legal work permits.

The immigrants’ spouses and children also would gain legal status. The immigrants would have to pay a fee of up to $1,000 to finance administration of the program by the Homeland Security Department.

A less-permissive version of the Kennedy bill was introduced by three Arizona Republicans, Sen. John McCain and Reps. Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake, containing a longer waiting period for temporary workers to gain work permits and no provision for family.

Kennedy and Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), along with Reps. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Chris Cannon (R-Utah), are sponsoring legislation to reform the current visa process for temporary agricultural workers, improve working conditions, and allow them to obtain work permits and eventually become legal residents.

More restrictive legislation has been introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to provide the agricultural industry with guest workers who would be required to return to their home countries — and would have their wages partially withheld to make sure that they do.

In addition, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have introduced a bill to help the children of illegal aliens go to college at in-state tuition rates and eventually gain legal status.

While some Republicans are as progressive on immigration issues as most Democrats, the GOP has a significant nativist wing calling for denying public services to illegals. Some of them even opposed a bill helping illegals serving in the military in Iraq achieve citizenship.

GOP pollster Ed Geoas, who has done extensive surveys on immigration, says he’s convinced that Bush and White House political adviser Karl Rove are eager to take steps toward liberalization, but are waiting until homeland security and economic conditions are better.

Another key GOP strategist said, “We have to revisit it. It’s a big issue in battleground states like New Mexico and Florida.” Bush had best not wait too long.

Due to the Columbus Day holiday, Morton Kondracke’s column appears today. “Pennsylvania Avenue” will return to its regular schedule Thursday.

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