LET’S GET A COUPLE OF THINGS STRAIGHT about the immigration speech President George W. Bush unreeled Monday night from the Oval Office. His address had nothing to do with actual border policy and everything to do with domestic electoral politics.
The real mission of the 6,000 National Guard troops he has called out is to quell the rebellion on the president’s right flank, the flaring mutiny of his own conservative base. Indeed, if the president were being honest, the newly mobilized troops would be taken off the federal payroll and moved onto the books of the 2006 national Republican campaign.
They certainly aren’t going to be stopping illegal immigration. Most of the Guard will be unarmed. They will be barred from patrolling the border itself, as well as from confronting, apprehending or even guarding undocumenteds. The troops will be given solely behind-the-scenes, low-profile, mostly invisible tasks of pushing paper, driving vans and manning computers. Bush could have saved the taxpayers a load and sent a few battalions of Boy Scouts to do this job.
I’ve spent oodles of hours and days on the border over the last five years, including many contacts and visits with the Border Patrol. I’ve yet to bump into a single one of the 350 National Guard already deployed on the border.
Of course, “sending troops to the border” sounds great — if you are among those who actually believe there is a technological or military fix possible for our busted-out immigration policy. That’s what Bush is hoping, at least — that conservatives who are fed up with him, especially on what they see as his failure to stop the human tide of poor people washing across the desert, will be revitalized by the manufactured fantasy of armed, crew-cut, uniformed young Americans standing shoulder-to-shoulder from Yuma to El Paso.
Chances are Bush’s border move will be no more successful than his management of the war in Iraq or his response to Katrina. The close-the-border faction of his own party is highly unlikely to accept Monday night’s sop. They know, just like the governors of New Mexico and California know, just as local law enforcement on the border knows, that Bush’s gesture is but a photo-op political stunt. They want the border closed, period. And their political representatives in the House — the Sensenbrenners and the Tancredos — are showing no signs of softening their resistance to both a guest-worker plan as well as a legalization path for the illegals already here.
And even those who bought the get-tough portion of the president’s speech also heard him endorse “comprehensive immigration reform” and a “temporary-worker program,” precisely the sort of measures scorned and denounced as an “amnesty.” So much for placating the right. Likewise, Bush’s dispatch of troops — no matter how empty and symbolic — contains enough reality to rankle the more liberal forces in the pro-immigration coalition.
In short, the president has now managed to alienate himself further from his own base as well as from some of his more reluctant and expedient allies on immigration. Heckuvajob, Dubya.
Bush’s plan may, however, provide some short-term benefit to some very nervous and endangered Republican House incumbents, offering them some short-term political cover. But the long-term risk seems enormous. A growing number of Republican strategists know that the Latino vote will loom ever more crucial in deciding which party will command governing majorities. And they are worried that the long-term damage of the president pandering to the anti-immigration forces could be devastating.
TRUTH BE TOLD, THE TOTALITY of Bush’s speech was rather reasonable. Stripping away the political theatrics and the empty phrasing, and putting aside the undue emphasis on deployment of the Guard, the president did endorse the sort of bipartisan reforms proposed by a coalition stretching from John McCain and the Chamber of Commerce to Ted Kennedy and the Service Employees International Union. And he called directly on both houses of Congress to finally agree upon and pass a bill that reflects that consensus.
The problem is that Bush should have been speaking out forcefully in favor of these moves ever since he raised comprehensive reform as a priority in his 2004 State of the Union speech. Unfortunately, he hid under his desk on this issue for the last two years. Only after the right wing of his base rebelled and only after the pro-immigrant movement blossomed in the streets — that is, only after the White House was completely overtaken by events — did the president act.
And, as usual, it was too little, too late.