As President Bush meets with Mexican leader Vicente Fox this week at the Summit of the Americas, you can be sure that in those private huddles he’s getting his ear chewed. Simply put, Bush’s much-hyped immigration-reform plan announced this month falls way short of what Fox has spent more than three years pressing for.

The Bush plan is also being squeezed domestically. Latino and labor groups have already launched a Spanish-language TV ad campaign branding the Bush proposals as insufficient. Calling the Bush plan a “jackpot” for corporations and employers, the executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, Eliseo Medina, said the White House
proposal “allows
hard-working, tax-paying immigrants
to become a legitimate part of our economy, but it keeps them from fully participating in our democracy — making immigrants a permanent subclass of our society.”

Undeniably so. The policy sketch put forward by Bush would grant temporary legal status, in renewable three-year cycles, to the estimated 8 million to 14 million undocumented currently in the United Status and would allow employers to bring in new immigrant workers under the same terms. But as critics like Medina have stressed, the Bush plan offers no open path to full citizenship and thereby runs the risk of creating a standing subclass of second-tier residents.

This criticism from the left, however, pales in contrast to the unfriendly fire directed against Bush from his own political right. Bush may have crafted the proposal as nothing more than a campaign ploy to woo Latino votes. But a barrelful of Republican congressmen — representing safe, predominantly white districts — couldn’t give two pesos for any increased Latino support.

Led by such immigration restrictionists as Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, the Republican right has already begun building a Capitol Hill barricade against the proposal. “Based on the conceptual plan as laid out, it’s highly unlikely it will ever see the light of day” in Congress, says our own local Neanderthal Republican member Elton Gallegly.

Some GOP strategists have been quoted this week saying that as many as 50 Republicans are lining up in the House to vote down any liberalization of immigration laws. Combine this with Democratic reluctance to hand the Bush White House any major political victory, and it’s easy to conclude that the plan could be DOA when it takes legislative form.

Is this good news? Hardly.

Whatever joy one extracts from seeing Bush get snubbed has to be measured against the scope of the dramatic human tragedy unfolding daily — and conveniently out of sight — along the border with Mexico. As I wrote in these pages (“Delusion
and Death on the Border of Hypocrisy,”
December 5–11), the southern border is now submerged in a hypocritical state of denial and delusion, and ultimately of death. The number of those who died trying to cross the increasingly fortified border last year was 408.

Poking holes in the Bush plan is child’s play. Its biggest glaring omission is what’s called “earned legalization” — an open pathway out of the shadows into full citizenship. But White House critics must do more than just propose paper-perfect alternative plans. They must also come up with concrete real-world strategies that ensure that any reform beyond the current failed policy goes ahead.

The fierce resistance to Bush’s plan from his own right, coupled with the recent repeal of California driver’s licenses for the undocumented, sends a discomforting but undeniable message: that in the current atmosphere, like it or not, immigration reform is going to be slow and incremental rather than sweeping and radical.

Those who today trek through the deserts and mountains, entrusting their lives to mafias of human smugglers in the simple hope of landing a $6-an-hour job in a car wash, and those who have been working hard here for five or 15 years or more but do not legally exist, are not much interested in seeing who wins a Washington political debating contest. They yearn for a handle, any handle, that will leverage them into legal status.


Perhaps the only saving grace of the Bush plan is that it has re-ignited a debate that has been too long absent. But in the current circumstances, that’s no small thing. The next step must be specific, immediate legislation that moves the ball forward.

We can hope that Fox pushes Bush toward a more comprehensive plan. On Capitol Hill, it will be easy to torpedo the plan and maintain the horrendous status quo. More difficult and more urgent is the need for some bipartisan agreement that will finally allow the undocumented to gain legal status. Even the minimalist Bush plan “would be worth it if it saves the life of even one migrant,” says Wayne Cornelius, one of the most ardent critics of current policy and director of UCSD’s Center for Comparative Immigration Studies.

But nothing is going to happen unless George W. Bush is willing to go to the mat against his own party on this issue. Whether he’s serious about reform or whether he’s just cynically posing for Latino votes will become immediately evident next week when the president delivers his State of the Union address and he either aggressively re-floats the immigration proposals or shines them on.

It was in 1993 that a different president went to the mat with his own party over a related issue. The newly elected Bill Clinton went back on his campaign promises and bullied and cajoled enough congressional Democrats to pass what had been one of Daddy Bush’s favorite proposals: NAFTA. Admittedly, it’s rather difficult to imagine Baby Bush doing the right thing and staring down his own party in the coming months to ram through even his mild liberalization of immigration policy. History has shown us that, generally speaking, Democrats do a much better job of imitating Republicans than Republicans do of aping Democrats.

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