Fourteen Western governors threw their political weight behind President Bush on the issue of immigration Tuesday (Feb. 28), formally endorsing reforms including a guest-worker program that would allow thousands more immigrants to receive visas each year.
The resolution comes as the U.S. Senate is expected in coming weeks to debate competing immigration bills, including a measure by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) that also advocates guest-worker visas.
Bush has proposed guest-worker visas to give illegal immigrants a legal avenue for working in the United States, allowing authorities to better track potential terrorists, according to a White House policy statement.
"Our attempt is to speak with a single united voice as Congress now prepares to take this (immigration) up in earnest," said Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R), who pushed for the resolution with Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D). Of the 14 governors, eight are Republicans and six are Democrats.
Illegal immigration has emerged as a hot-button issue in state legislatures, in large part out of frustration that the federal government hasn't reformed its immigration policies to slow the rate of illegal border crossings.
The governors' agreement also calls for better technology to patrol the border and for the federal government to build prisons to house illegal immigrants incarcerated for state crimes. They opposed blanket amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The guest-worker proposals are at odds with a bill passed by the U.S. House in December that advocates stricter controls and greater penalties for illegal immigrants, including a worker database designed to weed out undocumented workers.
Josh Bernstein, who tracks federal policy for the National Immigration Law Center, said the governors' proposal could help build support for the McCain-Kennedy bill and for other, less-stringent immigration measures.
"It looks like a balanced document. It calls for comprehensive reform," said Bernstein, whose organization supports broad immigration rights. "It may well be a positive voice because it is certainly very different from what passed the (U.S.) House in December, which is an unrealistic proposal that does nothing to solve our immigration problems."
But Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said a guest-worker program is simply another means of legalizing at least 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the country. FAIR advocates stricter immigration policies.
"It's so patently obvious that these people will never go home. I don't know whether they (the Western governors) are deceiving themselves or deceiving the American public," Mehlman said. "I cannot believe the people who got themselves elected as governor could be this stupid."
The governors voted on the resolution at a breakfast meeting of the Western Governors' Association, which includes 18 states and three territories. It was part of a broader meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington, D.C.
The governors of the following 14 states backed the resolution: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
Hawaii, Kansas and Texas could note vote because they have not paid dues to the association; Nebraska was not at the meeting and therefore could not vote.