Immigration reform remains elusive

January 16, 2004|By Gregory Michaelidis

IT'S FAR TOO early to tell what will become of President Bush's plan to reform the nation's immigration policies.

While the guest worker program he proposed last week would represent the most sweeping changes since the amnesty granted by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, there is little hope Congress will adopt it any time soon. And should immigration reform become law, it likely would include so many compromises by both sides that the result would do little to address the problems.

Here's why: While nearly everyone agrees there are major problems with our immigration policies, there is broad disagreement over the nature of them. Some fret about the social atomization that comes from absorbing so many immigrants into our civic culture. Others feel immigration is the essence of that culture.

For many conservatives, the primary concern is the lax enforcement of current immigration laws. Mr. Bush's plan, they argue, would reward lawbreakers by letting them stay here without consequences, in essence giving them amnesty. But these "law and order" conservatives are undercut by the "free market" conservatives in their own party who are willing to ignore the laws broken by those who come here illegally, and by those who employ them, in order to gain the benefits of plentiful, cheap labor.

For their part, liberal immigration advocates and many Hispanic leaders argue (rightly, I believe) that the biggest problem with the current system is the lack of labor and legal protections for the estimated 8 million to 14 million undocumented people in the United States.

Further, the system gives these people no means to "regularize" their status and emerge from the underground economy. Legislation introduced last summer by Sen. John McCain and Reps. Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake, all Arizona Republicans, would address this need. But the president's plan, the liberals believe, lacks this crucial element and instead would turn undocumented workers into an indentured underclass beholden to their employers.

For all of these reasons, Mr. Bush's plan has caused a stir. Talk-show hosts and mainstream news outlets have again become interested in immigration. And in a positive side effect, relations with Mexico, which have suffered since 9/11, have warmed somewhat since Mr. Bush's announcement. Mexican President Vicente Fox is grateful for some movement on an issue of vital importance to his popularity, and he'll get to discuss the plan further when he visits Mr. Bush at his ranch in March.

But with so many competing views on the nature of the immigration problem, any politically viable reform effort will have elements that some constituencies love and others hate. If, in fact, the president is sincere about pushing immigration reform this year, he likely is betting that there are enough moderates in Congress willing to pass something rather than fight for several more years and risk getting nothing.

This is no sure bet. Immigration invokes strong feelings across the political spectrum. The issue is so broad that civil rights, law enforcement, manufacturing, agriculture, trucking, homeland security and other interests all believe they own a piece of it and therefore have a stake in influencing any legislation that regulates it. And a topic this ripe for demagoguery makes it exceedingly difficult to build consensus around solutions that won't become overly diluted by compromises.

Mr. Bush is to be commended for his support for immigrants. In his East Room announcement, he declared, "America is a stronger and better nation because of the hard work and the faith and entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants." It was not too long ago that members of his own party were using harsh rhetoric to pursue baldly anti-immigrant policies.

But an elegant speech will not suffice. If he is serious, the president will need to risk far more of his political capital to bridge the chasm of views on this issue. Many critics doubt that can be done. But nearly all are in agreement - for various reasons - that the status quo simply is not acceptable.

Still, few hold out hope that Mr. Bush's plan is much more than an election-year attempt to increase support for Republicans among Hispanic voters in key swing states such as Florida.

The nation deserves an honest dialogue on the costs and benefits of immigration that provides fresh thinking and does not bog down along the well-worn paths carved by the demagogues and restrictionists. Mr. Bush's remarks are a step in the right direction. The coming year will tell us whether this simply was a political move or the beginnings of true reform.

Gregory Michaelidis is focusing on immigration in his doctoral studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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