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Civil War within the GOP Part II: Why the H-1B Numbers are Coming Down
by Gary Endelman

Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP America Inc. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP America Inc. in any way.

Biography This week, the Washington Times reported that President Bush will not push for a permanent restoration of Section 245(i) and a broad-based Mexican amnesty before the November 2002 mid-term elections. While not giving up on these goals, it seems as if the ever-pragmatic President will bide his time and make their implementation part of his electoral outreach strategy designed to re-elect him in 2004. At the same time, Attorney General John Ashcroft is moving ahead on his plans to launch a frontal assault against immmigration as part of his larger attack on post 9/11 domestic terrorism. The deputizing of local law enforcement as immigration agents is one example of this and, believe it or not, the General's campaign to lower H-1B numbers is another.

What campaign you ask? Here's what is going on. First, realize that immigration advocates continue to win the argument on Capitol Hill while losing it in the country as a whole. They fail to understand how September 11th has changed everything. Beyond the Beltway, the continuing cultural impact of sustained high immigration is profoundly unsettling and feeds deep fears over homeland security. The General Accounting Office reported in May 2001 that the receipt of new applications for green cards, citizenship and temporary work permits has soared 50% during the past six years while the backlog of pending cases has quadrupled to almost 4 million. Some 6.9 million permanent residents filed for naturalization during the 1990s; this was three times the number received by the Service in the '80s. During the past decade, temporary admissions doubled to over 30 million while asylum applications came close to the one million mark. The demographic implications of the 1965 immigration amendments, most notably the abolition of the discredited national origin quota system, are finally being felt in true measure, and America is not sure it likes what it happening. In this environment, September 11th came at a perfect time for the nativist lobby that has finally found a way to legitimize xenophic sentiments that had lost sway within the Beltway where they had been confined to the fringes of political debate.

President Bush personally believes in closer relations betweeen the US and Mexico as a cornerstone of his foreign policy agenda. Moreover, he knows who won the popular vote in 2000 and is smart enough to look for a way to broaden his base of support before he runs again. As Stuart Rothenberg reported in the April 4th edition of the on-line Capitol Hill newsletter Roll Call, there are several competitive states where a growing number of Hispanic voters could spell the difference between victory and defeat for the President.

In Nevada, for example, a state that Bush carried by only 3 points last time, Hispanics went for Gore by a whopping margin of 64-33%; if, as seems likely, there are more Hispanic voters in 2004, and they prefer the Democractic nominee as much or more than the Vice President, Nevada and its 5 electoral votes could easily find a new home in the Democratic column. Same story in Arizona and New Mexico. Bush took Arizona by 6 percentage points; Hispanics were only 10% of the electorate but liked Gore in a big way ( 65-35%). New Mexico was a dead heat with Gore barely squeeking by. Hispanics, some 12% of the electorate, voted by more than 2:1 for Gore. Even the battleground state that put Bush in the White House, Florida, is not good news for Bush when the Hispanic vote is put under the microscope. Yes, the President won the Hispanic vote in Florida (49-48%) but the largest population increase among Hispanic voters there is taking place among non-Cuban Hispanics who have shown themselves far more likely to vote Democratic than their Cuban brethren.

When Auguste Comte famously said that demography was destiny, he did not have American presidential politics in mind, but he might just as well have had. President Bush is faced with a delicate situation where he cannot afford to be perceived as anti-Hispanic ( anyone remember Pete Wilson?) but, at the same time, the country is jittery, still wondering where the next terrorist attack is coming from, and wondering if all these folks from somewhere else have anything to do with why the world seems such a dangerous place. So, the key is not to alienate the Hispanic community ( i.e. get re-elected) while reassuring those who equate immigration with terrorism that something is being done.

OK, it took a while, but here is where my meanderings make their way back to the Attorney General. He is determined to move against immigration in the public arena and needs a way to do it that will not interfere with, or undercut, the President's electoral logic. That is where cutting back on H-1B numbers comes in. Right now, the 195,000 annual H-1B quota seems secure through the end of fiscal year 2003. Moving against it would create quite a splash wouldn't it? A few headlines perhaps? Sure, big business would throw money into a campaign to save the numbers but money, even lots of it, might not be enough to beat back an Attorney General determined to save the nation from what he sees as part of the enemy within; since September 11th, many Americans might be inclined to see things the same way. So, Karl Rove and George Bush are happy since saving the H-1B is not a high priority with Hispanic voters and most everyone else beyond the Beltway will feel a bit safer since the Administration is really "doing something"; what exactly is irrelevant from the political perspective, the only one that counts in the end. Letting the H-1B level drop back naturally after FY 2003 to its prior levels would not score any political points.

That is why the Attorney General, who runs the INS (remember?), will move against H-1B numbers before October 2003. Bush will not oppose him, Hispanics like his focus on their issues, and the general public breathes a sigh of relief. Crazy you say? Too much time baking the old grey matter in the Texas sun? Probably. But, if you do see these headlnes in the coming months, please do me the kindness of memory and recall where you heard it first.

About The Author

Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP America Inc. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP America Inc. in any way.