In the weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, when immigration reform was at the top of the White House agenda, it seemed that we might see dramatic change. Action appeared certain, even if President Bush was unlikely to agree completely with Mexico's then-Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda, who insisted that "the whole enchilada" of border policy needed to come under bilateral review, and that the two countries should adopt a comprehensive new approach to immigration that would lead to legalization for the millions of undocumented Mexicans living and working north of la linea.
The terrorist attacks abruptly blew any reform plans off the national policy agenda as U.S. policymakers turned their attention to tightening borders rather than opening them. The undocumented workers who'd hoped to achieve legal status were among the collateral damage from Al Qaeda's assault.
Now, as he enters an election year, and with his advisors' eyes cast longingly toward the growing Latino vote, the president says he's preparing to send Congress his outlines of a new immigration policy "that helps match any willing employer with any willing employee." Bush's surprise end-of-the-year announcement that he's ready to make it easier for immigrants to work in the U.S. came just days after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said he favors "some kind of legal status" for the 8 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants living among us.
Some will see the president's new initiative as stemming from genuine humanitarian concern, or at least plain common sense. Others will discount it as hollow electioneering. But whatever the president's motivations, any forward movement on making immigration policy more flexible and realistic should be welcomed. Certainly, the White House plan will fall considerably short of the "whole enchilada" envisioned by Castaneda. But to many who are dealing with the problem, incremental change seems better than none. As Miguel Escobar Valdez, the Mexican consul general in the beleaguered border town of Douglas, Ariz., told me a few weeks ago, "At this point we'll settle for a few chilaquiles."
How scanty or hearty Bush's border reform recipe will be is still unknown. The details are expected to be revealed when Bush travels to Monterrey, Mexico, to meet with President Vicente Fox and other Latin American leaders Jan. 11 and 12. But in broad strokes, the Bush policy menu will have similarities to legislation drafted by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would create an Internet-based, federally run job registry. Employers would post jobs that would be available first to American workers, and only then to prospective immigrants, who could apply to fill the slots and receive temporary visas. Even sketchier are plans to provide legal status for undocumented workers already here.
Bush has already said he's "firmly against blanket amnesty," so his plan is likely to be more restrictive than those being floated by several of the Democratic presidential candidates. It also won't begin to satisfy organized labor, which has proposed a mass legalization of undocumented workers. And it is unlikely to address what many critics of current policy consider to be a central point of effective reform: significant U.S. economic development aid for impoverished "sender" communities in Mexico. No major American politician has shown the courage to go that far, to try to solve the problem of illegal immigration at its source.
Indeed, on the matters of immigration and border policy, both major political parties have a shameful record, and neither one can claim the moral high ground. Bush's new efforts can hardly worsen things.
The situation that currently reigns along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border is one of inhumanity, hypocrisy and denial. A full decade's worth of revised border strategy, vigorously implemented by President Clinton in the early days of his first term and subsequently sustained by Democrats and Republicans alike, has been an abject failure. Pandering to xenophobic pressures on the right, the Clinton administration spent billions of dollars over the course of the '90s, salting the southern frontier with stadium-strength lights, heat sensors and infrared cameras and virtually blockading traditional illegal crossing routes with squads of armed Border Patrol units.