San Diego Union Tribune

November 30, 2005

Bush immigration plan bolsters border but glosses over employers

By Jerry Kammer 

WASHINGTON – For much of the past five years, President Bush has sought to smooth the edges of the national immigration debate with the sentimental observation that "family values don't stop at the Rio Grande River." He has lamented the suffering inflicted by illegal border crossings and celebrated the migrants' contributions to the U.S. economy.

But during his visit to the border this week, the president tucked away his compassionate conservatism and strutted his stuff as a tough-talking lawman determined to bring order to the 1,950-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

He showed far more willingness to crack down at the country's edge, however, than to demand that employers, whose jobs draw migrants northward, comply with the law – which many believe is essential for successful immigration reform.

"We want to make it clear that when people violate immigration laws, they're going to be sent home, and they need to stay at home," Bush declared Monday in Tucson.

The change in tone is widely seen as part of a carefully calibrated strategy to reconcile rival Republican factions. This clash pits cultural conservatives, who warn that the surging numbers of poor immigrant workers are becoming a new and potentially destabilizing underclass, against business conservatives, who say low-wage immigrant labor is essential to economic growth.

To the former, the president is promising the rule of law. To the latter, he is offering a guest-worker plan to provide a continuous flow of low-wage labor to job sites nationwide whenever an American doesn't step up to work for the going wage.

Bush devoted most of his comments in Tucson and yesterday in El Paso, Texas, to administration efforts to harden the border: more Border Patrol agents, more high-tech detection, more efficient deportation of non-Mexican immigrants, whose numbers have surged recently.

But Doris Meissner, former immigration commissioner under President Clinton, said Bush failed to face up to the need for firm controls among the nation's 8.5 million employers.

"I don't know if there is any other answer than to be far more serious about not only border enforcement but also interior enforcement," Meissner said.

Without a determination to clamp down on employers willing to flout the law, Meissner warns, the president's guest-worker program would easily be skirted by illegal immigrants lured north by illegal employers.

Although Bush said he was committed to more interior enforcement, he was short on details. He showed no enthusiasm for the tough work-site regulation that many immigrant advocates say is essential in order to win public support for the broad legalization they want.

In the eyes of immigrant advocate Angela Kelley, Bush was unrealistic in proposing to allow illegal immigrants currently in the United States to work for up to six years, after which they would be required to return to the homeland they fled.

"They're not going to leave," said Kelley, assistant director of the National Immigration Forum. She said six years is plenty of time to put down roots, develop attachments and give birth to new American citizens.

"They would go back to an undocumented state, and we would end up with an even bigger illegal immigrant population than we have now," Kelley said.

That scenario, of course, summons the specter of the last major overhaul of immigration policy, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Passed after five years of debate, that act sought to balance the compassion of large-scale amnesty with the toughness of employer sanctions intended to counteract the jobs magnet.

It left a legacy that shadows the current debate in Congress. The reform act resulted in immigration networks that expanded as 3 million persons claimed amnesty and summoned their relatives – and the nation's illegal immigration population grew to 11 million.

This time, immigrant advocates say, any new reform needs to couple legalization with a serious commitment to enforcement. Skeptics doubt that there is a commitment to that unpleasant and complicated task.

When Congress returns next week, the House is expected to take up legislation to tighten the border. And the Senate leadership has pledged to consider proposals early next year for an ambitious legalization program.

Intense debate is expected over a bill proposed by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., that would provide not only "earned" legalization, but also offer a path to citizenship. The debaters will be mostly Republican, as Democrats overwhelmingly favor the sweeping legalization backed by labor unions, ethnic organizations and church groups.

Mark Krikorian, director of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, says the decisive action could take place in a House-Senate conference committee called to reconcile the differing versions of reform legislation.

"If there is a conference committee, the White House would try to use its muscle to get house conferees to swallow a guest-worker program," he said.

For Bush, this means a lot of heavy lifting on immigration in the coming year. The speeches this week in the Southwest gave him a chance to flex a little muscle before he tackles that job in earnest.

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