As Texas Gov. George W. Bush continues his minority outreach tour, attacks on the Immigration and Naturalization Service have been a central part of his stump speeches. While speaking to the League of United Latin American Citizens last month, he proposed dividing the agency in two. Last week, addressing the annual convention of the National Council of La Raza in San Diego, Bush proposed $500 million in new spending to help expedite the backlog of citizenship applications at the INS, along with implementing a "culture of respect" at the agency.
"Family values don't stop at the Rio Grande river," Bush told La Raza. "We've got to have an INS that understands that. The current INS is too stuck in the past, it's too bureaucratic."
Under the Bush plan, the INS would be split into two agencies -- one that would focus on the policing functions of enforcement of immigration laws and securing the border, the other would deal mainly with the administrative components of processing paperwork. It closely resembles legislation coauthored by Sens. Spenser Abraham, R-Mich., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., that has bipartisan support.
But the move to divide the agency in two is being viewed skeptically by many Latino activists.
"It's a bit of a double-edged sword," said Lisa Navarette, deputy vice president of La Raza. Navarette fears that already too much money is being appropriated for policing of the borders, while the administrative wing of the INS remains underfunded. Separating the agency's functions, she said, would make it even easier for Congress to continue that pattern. "We believe that the N in INS has been neglected at the expense of the I," she says.
Bush tried to assuage those fears during his San Diego speech. But a spokesman for Vice President Al Gore claimed after Bush's speech that the governor's plan actually sets aside less money for speeding up the citizenship application process than Gore's proposals.
"You've got to admit, when it's taken three to five years to process paperwork in the INS, that's too long," Bush said. "I want to spend $100 million per year for five years to [reduce the time required] to process someone's form from three to five years to six months. We can do a better job in America," he said, drawing one of the few enthusiastic applauses from the La Raza crowd.
Decisions about who should -- and who shouldn't -- be let into the country often unite the left and the right of the traditional political spectrum. In 1998, there was a movement within the Sierra Club to pass an internal resolution calling too much immigration bad for the environment. And while La Raza opposes the split of the INS, the isolationist Center for Immigration Studies is also against the split.
"The solution isn't all that clear," said the center's executive director, Mark Krikorian. "Immigration doesn't split between right and left anyway, but the issue of INS reorganization and the administration of immigration policy doesn't even divide between high and low immigration." Krikorian said the agency was "inept" and "half-assed," but that the INS is not completely to blame.
"It's just indicative of the low regard that the INS immigration administration has been held by Congress and the administration for decades. The INS had always been a joke agency," Krikorian said.
"Too many interests are involved, and too many people are conflicted on this issue. You have powerful lobbies like farmers and high tech pushing for more immigration, and the INS just can't handle it. But folks on the right, who have been focused on enforcement, are as much to blame on this as folks on the left, who have pushed for a more efficient bureaucracy."
Meanwhile, the Abraham-Kennedy bill moves forward with wide bipartisan support, and now a tacit endorsement from Bush, though the bill has been criticized by Gore.
"We don't need to create another bureaucracy," said Gore spokesman Jano Cabrera. "We need to strike the right balance between enforcement and service under a more streamlined INS. The vice president supports making the INS leaner and more efficient, and reforming the INS so that there would be clear and separate lines of authority under an immigration executive. He doesn't want to start from ground zero again."
Cabrera also said the Bush plan is not new money, and in fact dedicates less to INS streamlining than proposals backed by Gore and the Clinton administration. This year's Clinton budget calls for a $124 million increase in INS funding.
So while Bush scored major points among Latino leaders for just showing up, as well as focusing on education and improving minority test scores in Texas, those leaders are divided about his actual proposals for INS reform. Meanwhile, the Bush campaign has staked out a careful middle ground on the issue, allowing Bush to focus on a critique of the INS rather than step in the quagmire of immigration policy.
But immigration policy continues to be a volatile issue. "It's not being talked about so much now, because unemployment is at an all-time low, times are good," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. "But we'll see what happens when things aren't quite so good."
Some people aren't waiting. Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, who rode an isolationist platform to victory in the 1996 GOP New Hampshire primary, continues to make immigration a centerpiece of his campaign. On his campaign Web site, Buchanan writes: "This year, 1.3 million more immigrants will pour into the U.S. -- 400,000 of them illegal aliens. If America is to survive as 'one nation,' we must take an immigration 'time out' to mend the melting pot."
But with Bush at the helm of the Republican Party, the issue has been played down during the 2000 campaign. When Bush talks immigration, it is only to bash the INS, which, in the Latino community in particular, is always good politics. And many Latinos say his message is beginning to resonate.
"I thought he has really honed in on the major themes that Latino voters are looking at," said Vargas after Bush's San Diego speech last week. "He's talked about education, naturalization and the INS, as well as a lot of economic development issues. I think he's been very effective at communicating his message."
Vargas also vouched for Bush's Latino bona fides, saying the Texas governor stood in opposition to his party's anti-immigration fervor in the mid '90s, which dominated the political debate in California in 1994. "While all the anti-immigrant stuff was going on in California, many folks pointed to George Bush as an example of a Republican governor who was very different. So yes, people were screaming for Republican blood in California in 1996 and '98, but at the same time, there was always an acknowledgement that Bush was a very different kind of Republican."
After the GOP was decimated in California in 1998, in large part because of the rise of the Latino vote, the party turned to Bush to stop the bleeding. But, said La Raza's Navarrete, it remains to be seen whether Bush can stop Latinos from voting overwhelmingly Democratic, particularly in California. In 1996 and 1998, Republicans at the top of the ticket have struggled to receive 20 percent of the Latino vote.
"The damage that Pete Wilson did on behalf of the Republican Party in 1994 cannot be underestimated," she said. "People here have very long memories, and those wounds aren't going to heal anytime soon. But Governor Bush is trying. Now, we're the soccer moms of the current election cycle."