Saturday, June 2, 2007 | 7:11 a.m.
WASHINGTON - When President Bush struck back this week at critics who say proposed legislation amounts to amnesty for illegal immigrants, he was sending a not-so-veiled message to congressional Republicans, including Nevada Reps. Dean Heller and Jon Porter.
Heller has made no secret that he sees the bill as little more than amnesty, a reward for the 12 million people who illegally live in this country. Many voters in Nevada would rather see them deported.
Porter doesn't go that far, but says the bill is not tough enough on those who have broken rules to come to the United States.
Bush, however, is searching for a way to bring what he calls the "underground in America" out of the shadows. He regards illegal immigrants as vital to agriculture, gaming and other industries.
"If you want to scare the American people, what you say is, the bill is an amnesty bill," Bush said this week. "It's not an amnesty bill. People in Congress need the courage to go back to their districts and explain exactly what this bill is all about."
But Nevada Republicans might not want to do that. As Porter made his way through Memorial Day events in Southern Nevada, the immigration comments he heard could be summed up in two words: no amnesty.
"To a person, it was opposition to the Senate bill," Porter said. "People don't support amnesty."
"They want to know what happened to the wall? What happened to the fence? What about the terrorists?" he said. "The bulk of the discussion is, stop it now."
Sometime between the last major immigration debate 20 years ago and this one, the idea of granting residency to the millions in this country illegally has become pivotal. It could doom this year's effort.
During the immigration debate of the 1980s, before Minutemen vigilantes guarded the border and immigrants marched in the streets, amnesty was talked about openly as part of the great compromise of the 1986 law.
That legislation had been years in the making and was supposed to provide a three-pronged approach that sounds familiar today: Secure the border, clamp down on employers who hire illegal immigrants and, in exchange, give those living in the United States illegally the chance to become residents.
For the first time ever, undocumented immigrants en masse were granted amnesty, and nearly 3 million benefited.
Before that 1986 law, when public opinion shifted against undocumented workers, the government essentially ousted them, as happened during the Depression and again in the 1950s .
"We've had all of these ups and downs - periods of time where we welcome Mexican workers and periods of time where we don't welcome them and see them as a burden on our society," said Mario Garcia, a history and Chicano Studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "We're still not over that discussion."
The 1986 law also for the first time made hiring illegal immigrants a crime , with the intent to stem the flow of undocumented workers . But immigrants continued to pour into this country, creating the situation today with 12 million undocumented workers.
Part of the problem, former Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli, D-Ky., and former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo. wrote in The Washington Post last year, was that subsequent administrations were loath to crack down on employers who hired illegal workers.
Plus, said Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert at the conservative Manhattan Institute, the bill put unrealistic caps on legal entry, ensuring a robust underground economy to meet employer demand.
"People convinced themselves we don't need the workers - the phrase was literally, 'We can wean the employers of those workers,' " Jacoby said. She worries that an amendment passed last week in the Senate makes the same mistake on the current bill.
Supporters of the bill before Congress say it does not offer amnesty because it will be much more difficult for illegal immigrants to become legal than under the 1986 plan.
To qualify for the new Z visas, immigrants must pay hefty fines and learn English. If they want to become permanent residents, they must return home and get in line. The process can take up to 13 years.
The new bill also pledges to beef up border security, impose employer fines and establish a guest-worker program.
Garcia and other skeptics believe that the process will be so cumbersome that those without papers will remain in the shadows.
But those details often get lost over the prospect of amnesty.
"This plan is nothing more than repackaged amnesty from the last Congress," Heller said in a statement when the bill was introduced.
Nevada's Democrats, Rep. Shelley Berkley and Sen. Harry Reid, generally support provisions granting immigrants a path to legal residency.
Bush may be drawing some from his party into the fold. Last week, Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign quietly supported keeping legalization in the bill.
Ensign, who has helped shape the bill now in the Senate, joined a majority of senators in voting down an amendment that would have stripped the legalization provision. Had it passed, it would have doomed the entire bill.
"You have to come up with a plan to deal with the 12 million as part of a comprehensive package," Ensign said before last week's vote. This bill, he added, begins to do that.