The bottom-line question about President Bush's speech Monday night is whether or not it demonstrated he is finally serious about securing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The answer is a resounding and exasperated no!
The illegal immigration crisis now threatens to mark George Bush's legacy the way the Iran hostage crisis marked Jimmy Carter's. The question is how long America will be held hostage.
Back in 1980, voters could retaliate against Carter for his feeble response to the hostage crisis by throwing him out of office. Voters cannot throw Bush out for his feeble response to illegal immigration, but they can throw his party out of its congressional majority.
Unless Bush immediately undergoes a St. Paul-type conversion on illegal immigration, come Election Day the evidence will be indisputable that he was not serious about securing the border: Illegal aliens will still be flooding over it.
Public reaction to that continuing flood could sweep away the Republican House majority, and perhaps the Senate majority, too -- making the final two years of Bush's presidency an ugly time of investigations and recriminations by congressional Democrats intent on paving the way for a Democratic presidential victory in 2008.
Bush's immigration speech included multiple elements certain to further upset Americans already angry with a federal political establishment that won't fulfill its rudimentary responsibility of securing the border.
Last week in this space, I argued that Bush could begin a political comeback and help Republicans retain Congress if, among other things, he deployed troops to secure the border. In his speech, Bush gave ample justification for doing so. "Illegal immigration puts pressure on public schools and hospitals, it strains state and local budgets, and brings crime to our communities," he said. Securing our borders is "an urgent requirement of our national security." We need to close our borders to "criminals, drug dealers and terrorists."
Then he offered a transparently inadequate solution to this "urgent' problem: Deploying "up to 6,000" National Guardsmen. In three daily shifts along a 2,000-mile border, that's one per mile.
In a piece on HumanEventsOnline.com this week, Rep. Charles Norwood, the Republican of Georgia, recommended an initial deployment of 36,000. He based that on a study of the Minuteman Project published last year by the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, which concluded that six men per mile along the length of the border (36,000 over three daily shifts) could indeed stop illegal crossings.
Bush did not explain how he decided that one-sixth of that number could do the job, but he did insist that National Guardsmen "will not be involved in direct law-enforcement activities."
"The United States is not going to militarize the southern border," he said, as if using our military to secure our border would be beneath our national dignity.
On the other hand, Bush said he would use federal funds to train state and local authorities "to help federal officers apprehend and detain illegal immigrants." Rather than "militarize" the border, he is going to take part of the core federal responsibility of defending the national frontier and dump it on local cops.
Then there were the serial rationalizations Bush offered on behalf of illegal aliens, their employers and even those who demonstrate in favor of illegal immigration.
When he was trying to excuse employers for hiring illegal aliens, Bush accused illegal aliens of using "forged documents to get jobs." But then he described the type of illegal alien he would like to grant permanent legal residency as "someone who has worked here for many years" and who has "an otherwise clean record."
If employers generally can't be held responsible for hiring illegal aliens because illegal aliens are using "forged documents to get jobs," how can all those illegal aliens who have "worked here for many years" have "otherwise clean records?"
Where did all those illegal aliens using forged documents go, Mr. President?
"On the streets of major cities, crowds have rallied in support of those in our country illegally. At our southern border, others have organized to stop illegal immigrants from coming in," Bush said. "Across the country, Americans are trying to reconcile these contrasting images." These words suggest that our chief law enforcement officer believes there is moral equivalence between helping those who enforce our immigration laws and cheering those who break them.
There isn't. Enforcing our immigration laws is good. Breaking them is bad.
Republicans in Congress should remember this basic point, stop President Bush's immigration plan and insist that he secure the border. Whether they remain the majority may depend on it.