White House Ducks Immigration Hearing

The Bush administration has clammed up on immigration, just as Congress starts to seriously debate it.

With Republicans bitterly divided over the issue, the administration retreated at the last minute from a high-profile congressional hearing Tuesday. The unexpected withdrawal threw off senators from both parties, and potentially undermined President Bush’s own stated commitment to immigration reform.

“We’re going to do our work,” said Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, “and when the administration is ready to chime in, we’ll be ready to listen.”

Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy, an active player in immigration legislation, added that he was “disappointed” in the administration’s no-show approach. Lobbyists crowded into the hearing room speculated that the absence meant the White House was either leery of taking sides or convinced no bill would actually move this year.

Specter, though, insisted that his goal remains “having legislation enacted this year,” and he declared his intention to mark up an immigration bill after the August congressional recess. Congress will be particularly busy then, as Specter will also be overseeing the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for John Roberts.

“The absence of the administration officials will not slow us down,” Specter vowed. “In due course, they will have their input.”

The two top administration officials scheduled to appear at the morning hearing _ Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao _ did not send replacement speakers, nor did they provide written testimony. Last week, when the White House drew similar criticism for skipping a scheduled judiciary committee hearing on the anti-terrorism USA Patriot Act, written testimony was presented.

Tuesday marked the first time the full Judiciary Committee had scheduled a hearing on immigration since May 2002.

Lawmakers have introduced multiple competing immigration reform bills. The so-called AgJobs bill, backed by the United Farm Workers, the Fresno, Calif.-based Nisei Farmers League and others, would offer legal status and the eventual prospect of U.S. citizenship to several hundred thousand farm workers now in this country illegally.

Another big bill, co-authored by Kennedy and Arizona Republican John McCain, would likewise permit illegal immigrants now in this country to obtain a temporary visa. This bill, however, would not be limited to farm workers. To obtain permanent legal status, the illegal immigrants would have to pass background checks and pay back taxes as well as fines of $2,000 or more.

Kennedy and McCain say the promise of U.S. residency is the only reasonable magnet for an illegal immigrant population estimated to be upward of 11 million people.

“The reality is that 11 million people aren’t going to come out from the shadows simply in order to be deported,” McCain said, dismissing as impossible what he dubbed a “report to deport” scenario.

Adding ammunition, the liberal Center for American Progress calculated in a report issued Tuesday that it would cost the United States $206 billion over five years to pursue a policy of deporting every illegal immigrant now in the country.

A third competing bill, introduced last week, focuses more on enforcement with provisions like adding 10,000 more detention beds to hold illegal immigrants and hiring 10,000 more agents to enforce existing laws against hiring illegal immigrants. Unlike the AgJobs and Kennedy-McCain bills, this legislation would still require illegal immigrants now in the United States to return to their native country before seeking legal U.S. residency.

“That’s the time-honored and legal method for doing this today,” Arizona Republican Jon Kyl said.

At a White House ceremony in January 2004, Bush declared his own support for immigration reform. In the 18 months since, though, the administration has not proposed any specific legislative language. Bush himself has largely avoided the topic, even as vocal GOP conservatives have vigorously denounced any plan that could be construed as “amnesty.” The last White House press release focusing on immigration reform is dated March 6, 2004.