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Millions would be legalized
Immigrant advocates hail suggestion by Tom Ridge
December 12, 2003

WASHINGTON - Immigrant advocates are welcoming Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's suggestion to legalize millions of illegal immigrants as a sign that the Bush administration may be recommitting itself to a plan derailed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Though administration officials on Thursday downplayed the remarks and denied any policy shift, groups pressing for a sweeping legalization program said Ridge's comments represent a positive first step.

Judy Golub, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said: "I think people are recognizing it's time to get back to this."

Ridge touched off the debate, perhaps inadvertently, when he answered a questioner at a Miami town hall meeting Tuesday, saying Americans "have to come to grips with the presence of 8 to 12 million illegals (and) afford them some kind of legal status some way, but also as a country decide what our immigration policy is and then enforce it."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday that the remarks by Ridge, who oversees immigration enforcement, do not mean the administration will support a move "toward any broad amnesty."

Still, the administration has relaunched a discussion over ways to achieve what McClellan called "a more orderly, safe and humane migration policy" with Mexico, which accounts for more than half of the illegal immigrant population in the United States.

Last month, Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Mexican counterpart, Luis Ernesto Derbez, pledged to revive migration talks. Discussions were shunted aside after the terrorist attacks and pushed further into the freeze amid U.S.-Mexican tensions over the war in Iraq, a fight over water and other contentious topics. Still, they committed only to a "step-by-step process" and offered no specifics or a timetable.

McClellan and Ridge spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the administration isn't prepared to sketch its plans and that policy proposals remain under discussion. Nor has the White House formally endorsed any of the guest-worker bills circulating on Capitol Hill, which would provide visas or the path to legal residence for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.

"I don't see a substantial change in immigration policy in an election year," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, a House immigration subcommittee member who has expressed concern that an amnesty program for illegal immigrants could harm national security.

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower immigration rates, predicted the White House would downplay talk of major immigration change - particularly an amnesty sure to be controversial with large swaths of the American public - until after the election.

"The public is ambivalent about this," he said. "A consensus hasn't really jelled in such a way as to permit significant change."