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Once more to the border

November 30, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH TRAVELED to the border states of Arizona and Texas this week to speak about immigration. But the real boundary he should address on this issue is the one separating two of his political constituencies -- social conservatives and business interests.

In Tucson on Monday, Bush gave a mind-numbing recitation of supposed border security enhancements aimed at placating conservatives before bringing up what the business lobby cries out for and common sense dictates: a rational guest-worker program.

Watching Bush talk about immigration is like watching an old athlete who never fulfilled his promise. He has been saying the right things on immigration since he took office but has never followed through, for various reasons: 9/11, the war, other political imperatives and the need to nurse his political capital. Now he has almost no political capital, which might account for his timid approach.

He is still right, of course, that the U.S. needs to adjust its immigration laws to conform to economic reality. As long as there is no legal way for this country to fill the jobs it needs with imported labor, there will be a massive illegal labor market, no matter how many Border Patrol agents there are. As Bush said: "People in this debate must recognize that we will not be able to effectively enforce our immigration laws until we create a temporary-worker program."

Trouble is, print out Bush's speech and you'll see that he said this on the seventh of eight pages.

Before then, he rambled on as if the nation's dysfunctional immigration policies were purely a law enforcement issue. It was absurd for Bush to vaguely equate legislative efforts in the House, which address border enforcement but not the underlying issue of setting a realistic level of legal immigration, with bipartisan attempts in the Senate to offer a comprehensive solution.

The president's passive-aggressive approach to immigration has only deepened the schism within his party on the issue and made it harder for him to deliver reform. It's almost comical that he has put this off until next year, a midterm election year.

If Bush is ever willing to drop the platitudes, risk offending part of his base and show some leadership, he may find that most Americans are not afraid of immigration. They realize that the choice isn't between kicking out millions of illegal immigrants that our economy relies on or continuing to look the other way. It's between an immigration system that works best for the U.S. economy and denial.

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