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Immigration Reform Is A Worthy Issue for Bush’s ‘Boldness’

If President Bush is going to keep his promise to spend political capital on a bold second-term agenda, he should include comprehensive immigration reform that offers deserving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. [IMGCAP(1)]

To do so, he’d have to face down a noisy, but not large, anti-immigrant claque in the Republican Party that’s determined to use the threat of terrorism as an excuse to, in effect, erect “Stay Out!” signs at the U.S. border, even to restrict legal immigration.

In reality, creating a process to legalize illegals would help homeland security by allowing law enforcement agencies to concentrate on border security and tracking down criminals and potential terrorists — rather than chasing after millions of ordinary undocumented aliens, especially Hispanics.

This logic seems to have impressed border-state Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has told immigrant-rights groups that comprehensive immigration reform is his top priority for the next Congress.

McCain has begun working on reform with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who favors granting legal status — and, eventually, citizenship — to illegals who have been in the country for several years, have jobs, pay taxes, maintain clean records, learn English and pay a fine.

Bush has a record of favoring immigration reform, but it remains unclear how far he’s willing to go with it. In 2001, he seemed to favor a process that would allow illegals to earn their way to citizenship. This year, he’s advocated a worker-permit program that may or may not lead to permanent legal status.

It’s a good sign that the administration worked to exclude language sought by House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) from the intelligence reform legislation that recently passed Congress.

Bush will face a new test when Sensenbrenner’s measure — which would bar states from giving drivers’ licenses to illegal aliens — comes back for consideration next year. He and other restrictionists argued that, because some of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists gained access to aircraft using drivers’ licenses as identification, all illegal aliens should be denied them.

But this is simply a device to make life more difficult for illegal aliens. The 9/11 terrorists, or any terrorists, just as easily could have used their passports — or could use phony passports, or drivers’ licenses — to board aircraft.

The commission that investigated the 9/11 disaster specifically declared that its report called for “strong federal standards for the issuance of birth certificates and other sources of identification, such as drivers’ licenses, to avoid the identity fraud that terrorists can exploit. We did not make any recommendations about licenses for undocumented aliens. That issue did not arise in our investigation, as all hijackers entered the United States with documentation … [and] were therefore ‘legal immigrants’ at the time when they received their drivers’ licenses.”

To foster humane and effective immigration reform, Bush will need to re-educate the public, which tends to hold (according to polls) that America would be better off with fewer immigrants, both legal and illegal.

In fact, most serious studies show that immigrants are a net asset to the country. Illegal immigrants tend to take menial jobs that Americans won’t. They pay taxes. But because they live in the legal shadows, they often get exploited by unscrupulous employers.

On Sept. 6, 2001, with Mexican President Vicente Fox at his side, Bush said, “There are many in our country who are undocumented, and we want to make sure their work is legal.”

Soon after, in a White House briefing, officials told immigrant-rights groups that the administration leaned toward allowing illegals to earn their way toward citizenship.

But all work on immigration reform stopped after Sept. 11. It resurfaced this year as Bush worked to expand his support among Hispanic voters. At one point, he called for a work-permit system for illegals and told the League of United Latin American Citizens, “We will keep working to make this nation a welcoming place for Hispanic people, a land of opportunity para todos (for all) who live here in America.”

On the other hand, apparently in a bid to appease restrictionists in the GOP, administration officials also indicated that workers would have to return to their home countries when their work permits expired. This provision almost surely would discourage illegals from signing up.

Though analysts differ on the quality of exit-poll data on Hispanics, the Election Day numbers do indicate that Bush gained anywhere from five to nine points among Hispanics. Future growth for the GOP in this demographic depends upon who calls the shots on policy — Bush and McCain, or restrictionists such as Reps. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), Elton Gallegly (D-Calif.) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.).

Even though Tancredo & Co. get wide publicity — and have been aided recently by anti-immigration television and radio hosts, such as CNN’s Lou Dobbs — their legislative power in Congress has actually been waning.

In 1995, by a vote of 257-173, the House passed an amendment offered by Gallegly that would have required public schools to expel the children of illegal immigrants.

By contrast, this May, the House defeated, by a vote of 331-88, a Rohrabacher amendment that would have prevented hospitals from being reimbursed for medical care provided to undocumented immigrants unless they reported them to the Homeland Security Department.

On the other hand, this November, Arizona voters approved ballot Proposition 200, a measure designed to squeeze illegal immigration, by almost 60 percent. (Its implementation is being held up in court.)

McCain cited Prop. 200 — plus vigilante action by Arizonans against illegals and the deaths of illegal border-crossers in the Arizona deserts — as his motivation for making immigration reform his top priority.

In the 108th Congress, McCain sponsored, along with Arizona Reps. Jim Kolbe (R) and Jeff Flake (R), legislation similar to Kennedy’s that would have granted a path to citizenship to qualified illegals.

Kennedy’s legislation, however, also would have expedited citizenship for the spouses and children of legal immigrants, clearing backlogs of five to seven years, depending on the country.

It’s not clear whether Bush will propose his own legislation next year or wait for Congress to act and get involved, as he often does, when House and Senate conferees are hammering out final legislation.

On this issue, though, having Bush’s leadership early on would be welcome. He could also order the Homeland Security Department to use judgment before it summarily expels illegals who are parents of small children or locks up asylum-seekers whether they present a terrorist threat or not.

Restrictionists will charge that “amnesty” simply encourages illegal immigration. Bush can respond that “earned legalization” recognizes the reality that 9 million illegal aliens are not leaving — and that authorities should stop chasing them and focus on terrorists.

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