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Mark Alexander / Jan. 9, 2004

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…

In the best of all possible worlds, our nation’s borders would be airtight, immigration would be meticulously monitored, countries of origin would be cooperative, and worker supply and demand would be in perfect lock-step.

Alas, this is not the best of all possible worlds.

In a move that may ultimately define the Bush administration’s domestic policy as much as the war on terror has defined its policies abroad, the White House announced plans Wednesday for massive revisions in U.S. immigration laws. The administration is calling the series of immigration reform proposals a “temporary worker program,” designed “to match willing foreign workers with willing U.S. employers when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs.”

The plan, if adopted by Congress, will allow undocumented, illegal immigrants residing in the United States to obtain a legal work status for three years, with options to renew, and to apply for permanent residence status or citizenship. The plan also offers workers incentives to return to their countries of origin following the end of their work permit in the U.S. The program, the administration says, “would allow workers who currently hold jobs to come out of hiding and participate legally in America’s economy while not encouraging further illegal behavior.”

In other words, the program will forgive past criminality in order to deter future criminality. (Stay with us here, fellow Patriots, as we try to make some sense of this.)

Mr. Bush emphasizes that this is not an amnesty plan, because the program does not grant permanent resident status or a citizenship track to illegal immigrants. (That’s debatable.) Instead, says Mr. Bush, it grants temporary work permits to alleviate this widespread illegal influx into the U.S. “I oppose amnesty, placing undocumented workers on the automatic path to citizenship. Granting amnesty encourages the violation of our laws and perpetuates illegal immigration,” the President said. “America is a welcoming country, but citizenship must not be the automatic reward for violating the laws of America.”

In the 48 hours since the announcement, the Bush immigration-reform plan has met with vehement resistance from every band of the political spectrum. Indeed, a sizeable majority of Americans are opposed to any expansion of existing immigration, or any legitimization of existing illegal aliens. While a great deal of this reticence was anticipated, and some of it justified, a number of qualifications on the issue of immigration reform must be brought to light.

First, this is not a new issue. Following a February, 2001, meeting between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, a U.S.-Mexico High Level Working Group on Migration was established. This group would be tasked with addressing the problem of illegal immigration from Mexico to the U.S., which is estimated to compose more than 60% of all such immigration into the U.S. On September 6, 2001, the U.S. and Mexico agreed to “match willing workers with willing employers” and “ensure migration takes place through safe and legal channels.” Five days later, of course, the discussion of immigration reform, border policies and economic integration would come to an abrupt halt with the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Second, the Bush plan is, in part, politically timed and motivated. With the ascendancy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, California will likely be hotly contested in the upcoming presidential race. As such, the Hispanic vote will become critical to either party’s hopes of carrying the Golden State – and its treasure trove of 54 electoral votes. Should President Bush carry California, his re-election would be assured. However, when seen alongside a strong economic recovery and significant progress in the war on terror, California is not essential to the President’s prospects.

Consequently, charges of “hispandering” don’t stand up to scrutiny. Rather, the Bush immigration-reform plan should be seen as a first step toward the more substantive reform we anticipate after this election cycle. Even congressional proponents of the measure do not anticipate a bill to pass in 2004, indicating that the Bush team is using this occasion to gauge and build public support for farther-reaching reform beginning in 2005 with the President’s second term.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, immigration reform should not be confused with the issue of border security. Rather, the proposed plan is designed to deal with current realities: Millions of illegal immigrants already live in the U.S., and millions more will push across our borders unless circumstances change. The President’s reform plan is designed to curb illegal immigration and also includes an initiative to improve border – and hence homeland – security. Essentially, any nation wishing to participate in the temporary-worker program will also be required to stem further illegal immigration from its own country.

Fourth, while such an immigration policy may be blamed for stealing jobs from American citizens, this is simply not the case. The Bush plan stipulates that in order for a worker to participate in the program, the prospective employer must make a reasonable effort to ensure that a U.S. citizen is not available to fill the job. Simply put, American workers come first. In almost every case, illegal immigrants in the U.S. are doing jobs that American citizens are either unwilling or unavailable to perform. In reality, immigrant labor – both legal and illegal – forms an important underpinning to the whole of the American economy. The new plan will remove hindrances for employers eager to hire and immigrant workers eager to work. Also, the administration’s plan emphasizes the need to increase enforcement against companies that break the law and continue to hire illegal (unregistered) workers.

Fifth, the administration’s plan does not reward illegal immigrants with citizenship, nor does it place illegal workers ahead of legal immigrants who have lawfully sought to obtain a green card or citizenship.

Summing up, the plan is intended to confront the realities of illegal immigration. Illegal immigrants are in the U.S. now – between 8 million and 14 million of them, according to various estimates. Simply by being here, these illegals benefit from a wide array of social services at the local, state and federal levels; they do not, however, pay taxes on their earnings. A temporary-worker program like that proposed by the Bush administration will channel this immigrant labor into the tax base, rather than permitting it to siphon off government resources.

A closing thought: President Bush was formerly Governor Bush – of Texas. Mr. Bush is thus well acquainted with issues of migration and border control. In the same vein, the sponsors of similar legislation in Congress are two representatives and a senator from another border state, Arizona. In other words, the proposed temporary-worker program has its origins among those who will be affected most of all.

Quote of the week…

“A legalized system of migration would allow American producers in important sectors of our economy to hire the workers they need to grow, and it would enhance our national security. It would begin to drain the swamp of smuggling and document fraud that facilitates illegal immigration and would encourage millions of currently undocumented workers to make themselves known to authorities.” –Dan Griswold, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies

On cross-examination…

“The Democrats won’t take to it because they want a quicker amnesty, and Republicans are going to be hostile because it’s an amnesty after all. I’m not sure what the constituency is for this thing, but the National Restaurant Association probably loves it.” –Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies

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