The debate about illegal immigration has hit Congress full force. In the end, the real issue in choosing between the president's proposal to sanction illegal aliens with provisional worker status and the tougher counterproposal by many in Congress, is that in addressing the problem of undocumented workers, we somehow might harm American businesses and the economy.
Moreover, it's loudly apparent that -- as predicted months ago in this column -- both the White House and the Republican-led Congress are late to the table in tackling this volatile situation.
I tend to side with those who call for a serious effort to close our borders. Yet, I'm not convinced that Bush's proposal doesn't contain some wise provisions that would benefit us all, including the most hardcore conservatives.
Consider the results of a recent InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion Research survey, conducted for the Washington, D.C.-based Southern Political Report.
The poll surveyed nine states in the Deep South, where immigration issues are simmering. Forty-one percent of respondents favored cutting off benefits, such as Medicaid, to illegal aliens. Thirty-seven percent preferred that businesses that hire illegals be punished. The rest were undecided.
This was no small survey, with over 4,000 respondents and a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percent.
The results tell me that there has been no crystallization of public opinion on this issue, even in a region of the country where the number of illegal aliens has exploded.
This collective ambivalence on the part of Southerners may account for the willingness of the White House to chance a proposal that would offer a "temporary" work program as an essential component to any federal bill.
My inclination is to support the repatriation of illegal aliens to their countries of origin. Most of them work, but they don't pay taxes, even though many frequent the basic tax-supported institutions of our society, including schools and hospital emergency rooms.
And yet the businessman and investor in me says the hard-line approach might not be the one taken by my hero, Ronald Reagan. What would he have done?
First, let's consider that many illegal workers are willing to work jobs that pay too little to attract much of anyone else. Yet even with this huge pool of willing hands, it's still almost impossible for all the businesses that need such labor to find enough of it.
Also, consider the wage inflation that would ultimately infect the economy if this cheap labor force was expelled from our borders. The scarcity of workers would be immediate and drastic. Many industries would feel the price shock of having to replace them, especially the construction industry, which has been among the hottest sectors of our economy in recent years.
Sure, we could cut off all benefits to aliens and throw their children out of school. But this might chill their passion for staying here and working.
Despite the groan I hear from some conservative readers who are in high dudgeon over this approach, I'm going to insist that the principles I'm applying are bona fide conservative ones. They're not pure conservative ideology, but instead amount to pragmatic conservatism. I'm also going to venture a guess that the "Gipper" would have done something similar.
There's just one big difference between a likely Reagan solution and the one proposed by Bush. The current administration has paid only lip service to truly tightening our borders. Anecdotal and empirical evidence from the past five years proves the point.
I'm guessing Reagan would have offered some sort of program designed to start taxing these workers, but not at such a high and immediate rate that it would touch off a downward spiral in the economy by repelling them from work or forcing businesses to pay higher wages to keep them.
At the same time, Reagan probably would have lined the borders with so much law enforcement that those thinking about future illegal entry would routinely think again.
Simultaneous to this unfolding drama, Congress is now showing signs of what this column suggested they do long ago. Because they sense a near-desperate need to embrace a winning political issue, expect the House of Representatives to dust off Congressman John Linder's so-called "Fair Tax" proposal. It has become a cause celebre among many fiscal conservatives and even some moderates, thanks to the consistent championing of it by radio talk show host Neal Boortz and others.
Now the word is spreading that new and bigger giants in the hugely influential world of talk radio, including Sean Hannity, are preparing to push the Linder-Boortz tax plan. As a result, GOP House members reportedly have persuaded Speaker Dennis Hastert that the Fair Tax issue has legs.
Tackling immigration and a new system of taxation could be the last-minute medicine that a slumping Republican Party needs to save itself in the November elections.