I am against President Bush's newly announced plan to revise America's immigration system, but what's worse is that I don't think I even understand his motivations behind it -- either on substance or politically.
Under the proposal, the government would confer legal status (an initial three-year work permit) on millions of illegal immigrants living in this country who can show they are employed or on those currently living in their home countries if they have received offers of employment here.
Mr. Bush says that "common sense and fairness" require that we allow illegals to fill jobs that Americans are not filling. But just because the plan might make sense economically doesn't mean it makes "common sense," especially when there are strong non-economic reasons not to do it, which there are.
And why are we even talking about fairness in the same breath with illegal aliens? Do we owe them a duty of fairness? Does fairness mean we should not only look the other way at their criminal violations but reward them? How is that fair, by the way, to those who obey the law and to our system itself?
Bush says, "We should have immigration laws that work and make us proud." Our current laws, he says, "force employers to turn to the illegal labor market." But, since we make such a pathetic effort at enforcing our laws, how do we know whether they could work?
I also don't believe that our laws are "forcing" employers to turn to illegals. That's like saying laws against stealing are creating more thieves. Either we think it's good policy to limit immigration or we don't, but let's not attempt to whitewash misbehavior simply by changing the law. That, my friends, is a cop-out.
Bush argues that his proposal would strengthen America's borders. I fail to see the logic in this either. Are we going to have any less of a problem with illegal entry into this country merely because we grant legal status to millions of people, even if we are thereby better able to track them?
The president says that his plan is compassionate because it would guarantee the rights and legitimacy of illegal workers. I think there are wiser and more compelling needs worthy of our compassion. We shouldn't undermine the rule of law in the name of compassion.
The administration denies that this plan is tied to the green card process, yet the plan calls for the issuance of more green cards and would allow illegals to apply for those cards, whereas before they would have made themselves subject to deportation had they applied.
Some say the president's plan is designed to court the Hispanic vote. That certainly seems to be the case, but it's hard to imagine that one as savvy as Karl Rove would calculate that the marginal gains there could offset the major alienation of the conservative base as well as mainstream America, which seems to be largely unsympathetic to illegal aliens.
Others speculate that Bush is doing this to re-establish himself as a compassionate conservative at a time when voters are increasingly turned off by the stridency of political debate. How quickly we forget that Republicans don't easily win points for so-called compassion, whether by throwing untold billions of federal dollars at education or increasing domestic spending elsewhere.
Others have suggested Bush is correct that Republicans can't afford to be viewed as a party hostile to immigrants or immigration as we enter this new century with its ever-changing demographics. True, Republicans can do without a xenophobic or nativist image, but I don't understand how opposing illegal immigration is tantamount to being against foreigners any more than opposing affirmative action makes one a racist. Republicans should stick to principle and leave the pandering to the Democrats.
The fact that even Bush's supporters aren't sure why he's doing this or how he can justify it is all the proof we need that it is wrongheaded. It's a muddled plan, with dubious goals and inevitably negative consequences -- which doesn't bode well for the president's image as a decisive leader with moral clarity.
Beyond undermining the rule of law, this plan devalues the uniqueness of American citizenship by trivializing the laws aimed at making it selective and a special privilege. It sends a message that illegal immigration is a trifling matter.
President Bush, whom I deeply admire on many levels, has stretched the patience of conservatives too far on this one. He should reconsider.