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An Unlikely Immigration Champion

March 23, 2004|Tamar Jacoby | Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is editor of "Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What It Means to Be American," a collection of essays.

Ten weeks after President Bush unveiled his historic immigration reform package, the word is out on the street that it is already dead. But in fact, the battle over the plan is far from over -- and even if no law is passed soon, the initiative has forever changed the immigration debate, making an overhaul of the kind the White House has proposed all but inevitable in a few years, if not earlier.

Radical as they seemed to some, Bush's principles, announced with great fanfare in January, were a calculated compromise. The goal was to eliminate the vast black market for unskilled labor created by our current, unrealistically stingy immigration quotas. But the president knew that political pressure from both sides -- from Democratic immigrant advocates and the heavily anti-immigrant Republican right -- would be intense. So he chose a relatively cautious middle course: a guest worker program that would admit many more legal immigrants than current laws do, but which stopped short of granting participating laborers the right to remain permanently in the country.

It was a clever political gambit, but it didn't work -- at least not in the short term. And the opposition from both flanks has been unrelenting.

The Democratic reaction was predictable enough: "too little, too late." But the outcry from the right -- from conservative activists and their grass-roots base -- was even more virulent and far more damaging for Bush. Within days of the announcement, the Washington grapevine reported that negative mail was pouring into the White House. Even now, several Republican congressional offices say their correspondence is running as much as 400 -- or even 1,000 -- to 1 against the initiative. Opponents have taken to the Internet and the airwaves, angry crowds have turned out for demonstrations in Arizona and other border states and, according to insiders, there may even have been some fall-off in contributions to the Bush reelection campaign. No wonder the president has done little since January to advance the proposal.

Of course, this is an election year, and the situation could change in a news cycle. John Kerry could choose a Latino like New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as his running mate, or he could simply give a major speech endorsing immigration reform. Either of these steps could persuade the president to resuscitate his proposal to appeal to much-prized Latino swing voters. And reform advocates on Bush's left know that their political leverage with him will never be greater.

But even if no bill is passed in the foreseeable future, the Bush initiative still marks a critical step forward in the effort to make our immigration code rational, bringing it more into line with the realities of the global labor market.

For one thing, popular or not, the proposal has already energized a national conversation about immigration -- a conversation that would never have taken place otherwise. Despite the glaring failure of current law -- a failure acknowledged both by those who want higher immigration ceilings and those who are determined to lower them -- no one on either side of the argument had made any headway with the public since 9/11. The Bush initiative changed that overnight.

Second, the Bush proposal has put a floor under the immigration debate: a point beyond which we as a nation can no longer retreat. The analogy is civil unions for gay couples. Just a few months ago, that seemed like a radical idea. Now, in the light of the debate about gay marriage, civil unions are the least-generous option and a plausible fallback position even in some conservative states. So too now with a guest worker program and more realistic immigration ceilings.

Finally, by making clear that the critical question about an immigration overhaul is not if but when, the president's speech created space for advocates to get busy working out the details of a reform package. The Bush proposal is only the roughest outline of the change that's needed. The most glaring gap has to do with enforcement. Congress' last best idea for enforcing the nation's existing immigration code -- the employer sanctions at the heart of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act -- has proved a total failure, and nobody has come up with a better notion.

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