Bush's Immigration Half-Measures

Most people don't understand that we're doing a heck of a lot better job of getting control of the border.  -- Karl Rove, May 15, 2006, as reported by The Washington Post.

Interesting. The president's right-hand man thinks the Bush administration is doing a heckuva job with immigration policy -- just like it did with Hurricane Katrina. Yet the president's proposals for immigration policy last night emphasized getting control of the border, over and over again. But that's because this address was more about politics than policy.

Rather than offer a genuinely workable solution to the nation's immigration problems, President Bush sought to pacify a wide range of restive political constituencies -- from the conservative base feeling threatened both economically and culturally by increased immigration, to the big businesses eager to maintain and expand access to a supply of cheap and exploitable labor, to a Latino electorate wary of a Republican party that looks increasingly willing to sell them out. As a result, the president's grab-bag of policy half-measures is likely to end up satisfying no one.

Take the much-discussed plan to send members of the already stretched and stressed National Guard to militarize the nation's southern border. The plan is intended to reassure those who believe that tougher enforcement of our existing, unworkable laws will be sufficient to deter illegal immigration. But even as the plan was announced in advance of the president's speech, the White House also worked to make it sound less drastic. The National Guard wouldn't actually be patrolling the border, just supporting the Border Patrol behind the scenes. And there wouldn't be 10,000 of them, as an unnamed defense official told the Associated Press last Saturday, as the number that might be needed.

And most of all, outside of noting an initial "one-year commitment," the president failed to clarify just how long they would be present. And not to worry, Mexico is still a great friend and neighbor. Oh, and whose taxes will pay for this ineffective deployment? Not to worry.

The failure of border security stems from a combination of U.S.-promoted economic policies that have increased poverty and economic dislocation south of the border and a mismatch between our immigration policy and economic needs here at home. Neither of these problems is addressed by imposing yet another mission on our over-extended National Guard. In reality, beefing up the border alone isn't going to do much to deter immigrants who already risk their lives to come to the United States.

The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, otherwise known as Hagel-Martinez, the Republican "compromise" bill the president is said to favor, is similarly a half-measure that does little to get to the root of the nation's immigration quandary. It would provide a means for unauthorized immigrants already in the country to regularize their status -- but not all of them, and not right away. By imposing an arbitrary three-tiered system based on how long immigrants have been living without authorization in the U.S., the plan seems to aim at making immigrant advocates happy that someone gets a path to citizenship, while assuring the anti-immigrant base that we are getting tough on, and deporting, someone. In reality, those who entered the country illegally six years ago committed just as serious -- or as minor -- a legal infraction as someone who crossed the border illegally last week, while someone who came here three years ago may be just as committed to working hard and assimilating as someone who arrived seven years ago. The illogical time limits don't address the underlying problem of 12 million unauthorized immigrants upon whom our economy depends, yet whose vulnerability in the workplace threatens to drive down wages for U.S. workers. Nor would a temporary worker program, the president's preferred expedient for the nation's future immigration needs, be much better.

There's something ironic about President Bush's evocation of the "great American tradition of the melting pot" and the United States as "a nation of immigrants" even as he calls for a guest worker program that would relegate many future immigrants to temporary worker status, coming to provide labor power for only a few years and then sent away.

Not only is such a temporary worker program antithetical to the idea of welcoming immigrants to truly become part of our nation, but it is far more dangerous to the majority of Americans who are struggling to hold onto or attain a middle-class standard of living than simply expanding the number of immigrants allowed into the country as permanent residents would be.

A guest worker program essentially institutionalizes the second-tier status of immigrant workers, providing employers with a constantly renewing labor force that is in many ways at their mercy, and thus will always be paid less and work under worse conditions than citizens. The more jobs that can be transformed into "temporary worker jobs" the fewer domestic jobs will provide the wages and benefits capable of providing a middle-class standard of living. It's less a case of immigrants "taking jobs" and more a case of the quality of jobs being downgraded once it's clear that a powerless undocumented or temporary worker labor force will be available to fill them. The half-measure could end up making the current situation of exploitable immigrant labor even worse.

Is it possible to gain acceptance for a policy that goes beyond inconsistent and counterproductive half-measures? With the polarized camps prevailing in the immigration debate today, it will certainly be a challenge. But the place to start is not by catering to the prejudices people already have but by looking for genuine common ground. As I've argued before on this site, this policy could evolve from recognizing the role unauthorized immigrants play in our economy while at the same time guaranteeing that they are afforded rights in the workplace to ensure that their wages and working conditions don't undermine the rights and wages of all workers.

In the midst of his plummeting popularity, the president lacks the courage to seek this type of common ground. Let's hope someone in Washington has it.

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