WITH THE LATINO POPULATION booming, one issue that could come into play in 2004 is President Bush's signal that he would help Hispanic immigrants gain legal residency.

During Mexican president Vincente Fox's visit to Washington in early September 2001, President Bush declared that "There are some--many--in our country who are undocumented and we want to make sure their work is legal. I'm willing to consider ways for a guest worker to earn green card status."

But after the terrorist attacks later that month, immigration reform took a backseat to homeland security, and U.S. relations with Mexico sank because of Mexico's opposition to war in Iraq.

The result is that Latinos have become the demographic that makes up the largest portion of the president's "drop off rate." A bipartisan Battleground survey shows that there is a 15-point difference between the president's personal approval rating of 61 percent and his job performance approval rating of 45 percent.

And though Republican Congressional candidates won 35 percent of the Latino vote in 2002, an August poll by the Latino Coalition found that registered voters said they'd vote Democratic 55 percent to 25 percent.

This even in the face of the Latino Coalition's findings that 35 percent of Latinos define themselves as "conservative" while only 22 percent define themselves as "liberal."

Moreover, 91 percent of Latinos said it was "important" to "reduce illegal immigration by promoting a system which increases the legal flow of workers in this country." And 87 percent want a policy that allows the federal government to "normalize the status of illegal workers in this country" as long as they have a clean criminal record.

The major Democratic presidential candidates have wisely taken advantage. All are in favor of legalizing undocumented immigrants with clean criminal records, increasing the number of work permits and visas, and working with Mexico to strengthen border security.

"Anyone who has been in this country for five or six years, who's paid their taxes, who has stayed out of trouble, ought to be able to translate into an American citizen immediately," Sen. John Kerry said at a debate in New Mexico last month.

"We need to change our immigration laws so that hardworking people who pay their taxes and have no criminal record have a faster track to citizenship . . . that will only come with a new president," Howard Dean told the National Association of Latino Elected Officials in June. (Dean is also courting the Hispanic vote with Spanish ads scheduled to air soon in New Mexico, where Bush only lost to Gore by 366 votes.)

In Congress, both Republicans and Democrats have seized the issue. Several bills are being churned out in both houses to liberalize immigration laws. A measure is in the works by Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and Republican Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel that would allow immigrants who have been in the country five years, have paid taxes, and taken English instruction to get legal work permits. The immigrants' spouses and children would then also gain legal status.

Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois have introduced a bill to help the children of illegal immigrants pay in-state college tuition rates and eventually obtain legal status.

The most restrictive legislation has been introduced by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. His bill is designed to help the agricultural industry by providing guest workers who would be required to return to their home countries--with part of their wages being withheld to make sure that they do.

Senator John McCain and Reps. Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake, of Arizona have introduced the Land Border Security and Immigration Improvement Act. The bill doesn't have caps on the number of immigrants allowed to gain legal status every year, but contains a longer waiting period for temporary workers than the Kennedy/Hagel measure and no provision for the family.

"Senator McCain doesn't want this to be an amnesty program, but he does want to encourage [undocumented workers] to come forward," a McCain aide said.

The aide said that the president has sent encouraging messages about McCain's bill, which has been publicly supported by California governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger.

GOP pollster Ed Goeas, who has done extensive surveys on immigration, told Roll Call that he is convinced Bush and his top adviser Karl Rove are going to address the issue once concerns about the economy and homeland security ease up.

They shouldn't wait too long.

Rachel DiCarlo is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

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