A Colorado congressman is accusing the administration of trying to hide documents showing that President Bush sparked a surge in illegal immigration last year by proposing a guest-worker program.
The documents _ obtained by the public-interest group Judicial Watch through Freedom of Information Act requests _ show that aliens crossing America’s southern border in the weeks after the president’s Jan. 7, 2004, announcement interpreted his proposal as a general amnesty, said Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Republican and chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus.
Some 45 percent of aliens who were stopped at the border said they were trying to enter the United States because they would be afforded an opportunity to stay under the president’s plan, the documents showed.
The documents were obtained by Judicial Watch from the Department of Homeland Security. After the president announced his policy, the department ordered a survey of apprehended illegal immigrants to determine whether the proposal influenced their decision to cross the border.
About 1,700 questionnaires were filled out, Judicial Watch said, and the department thus far has handed over 850 in response to the group’s Freedom of Information Act request. The results establish that a significant number of the captured aliens were crossing the border to take advantage of what they understood to be the Bush program.
Once the outcome became apparent and could prove embarrassing, according to Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, “the Bush administration abruptly shut it down. The Border Patrol, at the behest of the White House, instructed its agents not to provide the information about the negative impact of the proposed amnesty program.”
Agents were given a document from Homeland Security, marked “internal use only,” that was described as “White House approved talking points” on Bush’s temporary-worker program. Agents were told, “Do not talk about amnesty, increase in apprehensions or give comparisons of past immigration reform proposals” and “do not provide statistics on apprehension spikes or past amnesty data.”
“Unfortunately, at a time when the United States faces an illegal-immigration crisis and a war on terrorism, Bush administration officials directed Border Patrol agents to mislead the American people,” Fitton said. “This administration improperly withheld information it knew would be embarrassing.”
Fitton said information obtained from the 850 survey responses provided to his organization established that Bush’s guest-worker program was “broadly interpreted as an amnesty program by illegal immigrants from Mexico” and that the proposal “lured greater numbers of illegal immigrants to the U.S.” When asked if they would accept amnesty if offered, 80 percent said yes.
According to U.S. Border Patrol data, the number of illegal aliens apprehended along the nation’s southwestern border jumped 25 percent in the first three months of 2004 compared to the same period in 2003.
Tancredo accused Homeland Security of issuing a “gag order” and then “stonewalling” when Judicial Watch sought information.
The events, he said, “suggest that the administration is playing politics with border-security data. I hope that this is not the case. It is crucial that the American people know that their government is not letting politics get in the way of national security.”
The White House had no immediate response to the claims.
Immigration policy, which traditionally is an issue near the top of the American public’s list of concerns in polling, has dogged the administration for months. While anti-immigration forces have called for tightening border security and dispatching illegals back to their homelands, the president has taken a softer approach, suggesting the creation of a temporary-worker program for aliens and permitting those already in the country to seek citizenship.
The president told the 2005 Latino Small Business Economic Conference meeting in Washington in May that the United States must have “a rational policy when it comes to immigrants coming to this country.”
“I believe if somebody is willing to employ somebody and they can’t find an American worker, and somebody is willing to do the job, we ought to make that connection a legal connection,” Bush said. “People come here to work.”
The White House proposal, he said, would make U.S. borders more secure “as opposed to people having to get in the back of 18-wheelers and sneaking across, you know, Texas borders, or trying to walk across the desert to find work.”
Lawmakers have been signaling their intent for some time to crack down on illegal immigration, saying the flow of undocumented aliens threatens American security, deprives residents of jobs and places a strain on the nation’s social infrastructure.
The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank, estimates that the population of illegal aliens reached 10 million as of November 2004. The Census Bureau maintains that this population increases by as many as 500,000 every year, mostly from Mexico.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., have introduced legislation that essentially would enact the Bush proposal. The White House and the lawmakers maintain the worker program doesn’t constitute amnesty. Tancredo disagrees.
“But it is amnesty when you say people are not going to be punished for violating the law,” Tancredo said. “We’re not stupid. We know it when we see it. So can the people outside this country who know amnesty when they see it.”
(Contact Bill Straub at straubb(at)shns.com)