President Bush got it just right for once. His immigration speech had all the key moves he needs to keep his base in order and to reach out to the Latino voters who are the political future of the Republican Party.
He began with the wall — the border fence. Whether made of concrete or of high-tech instrumentation, he has finally embraced the reality that border agents, no matter how numerous, cannot police a 2,000-mile border. And Americans have no reason to have faith that they can. Only a fence can control the massive flow of immigrants across our borders and give Americans some sense of control over our own country.
By addressing the problem as one of sovereignty, Bush said it just right. A country that can’t control who comes in is not sovereign.
Bush resisted the crazier appeals the frustrated elements of his core support would have urged on him. He did not require that we round up millions of Mexicans, Gestapo style, and force them to go back over the border. He conceded that there is a difference between those who have been here for years and recent arrivals, and he did not require illegals to go home and touch go in order to come back again.
This is not a children’s game, and the massive migrations such a requirement would have imposed would have made us into a totalitarian state, rooting out residents, albeit illegal ones, by knocks on their doors late at night. Nor did he take the demagogic approach and further criminalize illegal immigration by making it a felony.
He also satisfied the core demands and needs of the Hispanic community, assuring that the Republican Party will have a future as their ranks in our voter population swell. He set out a path by which Latinos can come here legally, matched with jobs and willing employers. If illegal immigrants disappeared, so would much of our economy, and Bush realized this in his guest-worker program.
His attempts to differentiate between legal paths to citizenship and amnesty were a bit strained and will undoubtedly attract much-deserved criticism, but his attempt was a good one. The fact is that those who do learn English, resist drugs, remain arrest-free, pay taxes, contribute to FICA and remain employed should become citizens after the passage of a certain time if they wish to do so. These are the sort of citizens we want and need, regardless of their accents or their skin colors.
And by emphasizing English, Bush repeats the fundamental credo of the melting pot or of our national motto: “Out of many, one.”
Congress would be doing itself a favor by passing the Bush plan just as he spelled it out. He has co-opted the middle ground, as any president must in order to govern. Those who would seek harsher or more exclusionary policies or who would inveigh against “walls” and border barriers would do so at their own political peril. There is only one middle ground, and Bush has claimed it and left the others to the extremes.
After the enactment of the Bush program, if it is passed, the nation will see solutions happening. The media will cover it as border guards take up their jobs and the National Guard assumes its positions. The nation will follow the construction of the border fence and will see guest workers come in to take jobs that need doing. They will see a problem being solved before their eyes. It will be good for their sense of confidence in government and for the Bush administration to have gotten at least one thing right.
But, as Churchill said, wars are not won by evacuations. Immigration was never going to be a comeback issue for Bush. At best he could escape damage to his base and to his prospects with America’s Latinos. It is over oil and energy that he must come back and resume his ratings and his power. It is only by laying out a broad and comprehensive national plan that shows everyone how we can solve our oil dependency in years not in decades that he can stop from becoming the lamest of ducks.