Why the president's new immigration scheme won't work

December 02, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- On the day before President Bush launched his new border security and guest-worker proposal, he was almost upstaged by a timely and telling U.S. Border Patrol complaint: The labels on their uniforms read "Made in Mexico."

It's "embarrassing" to wear a uniform made in Mexico while protecting the country's border with Mexico, T. J. Bonner, president of the border cops' union, told the Associated Press.

It's also symbolic of the real world with which Mr. Bush must reckon. Borders, artifacts of the political world, crumble these days before the relentless pressures of the money world. The president, a businessman who happens to occupy the world's most powerful political office, has come up with an immigration plan that tries to satisfy both worlds - and fails.

For one thing, his plan is not new. It is the same temporary guest-worker program he unveiled in January 2004. It has only been repackaged with more emphasis on border security, much less on the guest-worker plan, which sounds to many in Mr. Bush's own conservative base like an amnesty similar to others passed since the 1980s. To critics, amnesties only reward lawbreakers.

Mr. Bush is merely trying to calm and take control over the rising political storm that he helped to generate around immigration, an issue that has erupted in anti-immigrant backlash as volunteer "Minutemen" have stirred up publicity with their makeshift border patrols.

Immigration divides Mr. Bush's conservative base more deeply than any issue since Harriet Miers' doomed Supreme Court nomination. His border security/guest-worker scheme could easily meet that same unhappy end. Some of his most outspoken fellow conservatives are calling for a range of anti-immigrant measures. Some proposals are as radical as a wall along the entire 2,000-mile Mexican border, using military forces to patrol the border and creating a volunteer marshal program to help patrols.

One bill sponsored by Rep. Nathan Deal, a Georgia Republican, would go so far as to end this nation's time-honored practice of granting automatic citizenship to children born here to undocumented immigrants. Mr. Deal's suggestion is sad, unnecessary and, I am confident, far outside the mainstream of how fair-minded Americans really feel about immigration.

A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey in April found that 67 percent of respondents favored using the military to guard the Mexican border, but 62 percent favored allowing undocumented immigrants working in the United States to apply for legal temporary-worker status.

That's what Mr. Bush wants, although he cautions that it is not another amnesty. But one wonders: If his guest-worker plan is not offering amnesty, what does?

The program would allow immigrants now illegally in the United States to obtain legal status for three years with the possibility of another three-year extension if they have a job and their employer vouches for them. The workers would be required to go home after their time is up, but the president has been vague about what is to be done about those who decide they don't want to go back.

What's missing is a serious crackdown on the biggest magnet that draws illegal immigrants: jobs. Employers and consumers love cheap labor, as long as it is not competing directly for their jobs. Mr. Bush shows no desire to get in the way of that cozy relationship.

We don't need tougher penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegals; we only need to enforce the tough penalties that already have been legislated. Instead, employer sanctions have been so poorly enforced that prosecutions of employers have plummeted in recent decades. When the law lacks teeth, it is ignored.

The result has been a make-believe immigration policy: The president pretends that undocumented workers will police themselves, and the rest of us pretend to believe him.

We need something more sensible. America thrives on immigration. It is part of our national character. But we also need some semblance of order - and fairness.

Clarence Page a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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