More Bush rhetoric on immigration Thursday, December 1, 2005
Rick Holmes Metrowest Daily News
President George W. Bush returned to the U.S./Mexican border this week and to the topic of immigration.  That much is good, for the issue demands national attention.  Unfortunately, Bush offered little new beyond rhetoric.

Bush spoke of beefing up the border patrol, which the U.S. has been doing steadily for the last four years.  He promised to drop the "catch and release" program, through which thousands of captured illegal border-jumpers from countries other than Mexico have been released on their own recognizance and never seen again.  That, along with Mexico's decision to begin requiring visas for travelers to that country from Brazil, has dramatically reduced the number of Brazilians illegally entering this country across the Rio Grande.

But Bush's talk about tougher enforcement at the border is undermined by his disinterest in enforcement at the workplace.  His administration is making almost no effort to go after employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers.  Between 1999 and 2003, the number of work-site arrests fell from 2,849 to 445.  The number of notices of intent to fine sent to companies that employed illegal immigrants fell from 417 to just three.

No amount of new border patrol agents, high-tech surveillance equipment or tall fences will stop the flow of illegal immigrants as long as there are good jobs waiting for them in the U.S. Nor will Bush's guest worker program succeed as long as there are employers ready to hire them even after their three-year work permits have expired.

Bush's proposal, which calls for guest workers to return to their countries of origin for at least a year after the three-year period -- renewable once for a total of six years -- expires, is impractical.  Some provision must be made to allow some of the 10 million illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

But even a reasonable proposal to legitimize the status of existing illegals, such as that proposed in a bill co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain and Edward Kennedy, won't work without strict enforcement at the workplace.  Otherwise, new illegal immigrants will keep streaming across the border, confident they'll be included in the next amnesty.

The Kennedy-McCain bill would give workplace enforcement responsibility to the U.S. Department of Labor.  That makes sense, but we'd go farther: Let state attorneys general go after employers as well.  If Washington falters again, states where illegal immigration is a particular hardship can move on their own.

Immigration is a tough issue politically for Bush.  The anti-amnesty right wants only enforcement at the border.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants a path to legal status for undocumented workers, but without tougher punishment for those who hire them.  Hispanic voters Bush would like to bring into the Republican fold want family reunification and a way to establish citizenship.

None of these groups appear to have been impressed by Bush's rhetoric this week on the border.  If the president is interested in accomplishing more than simply distracting people from problems in Iraq, he needs to bring the competing immigration agendas into a comprehensive bill that redefines the middle ground.  That's the difference between rhetoric and leadership.

Send comments to: jjrizo@rcn.com