For a brief moment last month, George W. Bush behaved like a responsible leader instead of a partisan demagogue. On the issue of immigration, which provokes so much demagogic and divisive rhetoric on the right, he followed his better instincts by seeking compromise. He took the risk of alienating his own right-wing base and reached out to John McCain and Ted Kennedy by endorsing a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants.
Then he must have looked at the polls showing that the Republican base is deserting him—and panicked.
The President’s decision to dispatch 6,000 National Guardsmen to the Mexican border, which he announced in a nationally televised speech on Monday night, gives off a sour smell of desperation. Polls published the following day indicated that overwhelming majorities of voters favor sending troops to the southern boundary. Presumably the White House polled to test its own “solution” as well as the President’s message before scheduling his address.
No matter what the polls told Karl Rove about mobilizing the troops, the sad truth for him and his boss is that the public now regards Mr. Bush with a cynical eye. Conservatives no longer trust him on the issue of immigration, while liberals, moderates and independents no longer trust him at all. It is sad, because he once had the opportunity—and the sincere motivation—to lead the nation to a more enlightened policy toward immigrant workers and their families. His welcoming attitude, dating back to his years in Texas, has long been his most admirable quality as a political leader.
If that attitude attracted Hispanic voters to his party, then at least it represented a refreshing change from the “Southern strategy” of racially coded messages and the polarizing anti-immigrant policies of the recent past. Compared with much of the dubious image-making that has suffused his campaigns and his Presidency, Mr. Bush’s friendliness toward the Latino community seemed authentic and rooted in his own experience.
Unfortunately, he has waited too long to lead on this issue, and he has proved so incompetent as President that he lacks credibility. At this late date, sending thousands of troops southward in an effort to appear tough only underscores his failure.
Prospects for immigration reform along the lines proposed by Senators McCain and Kennedy would not be so dim if Mr. Bush hadn’t neglected border security over the past several years. The voters who now express such resentment and fear might have been mollified if the government had done more to restore control over the borders.
While the President boasts about boosting the number of Border Patrol agents by thousands, the truth is that his last budget only provided enough money to add 200 new agents. In Congress, members of both parties have sought increased spending on border security, only to be rebuffed by the administration.
That neglect has opened space for the ugliest elements in American society to reassert their brutality and prejudice. Extreme nativists imagine cruel mass deportations of Latino families, or worse, in order to preserve “white America.” Those lunatics have branded Mr. Bush a “traitor,” and many of his once-fervent right-wing supporters are attacking him bitterly.
On the far-right Web site WorldNetDaily, a columnist who describes himself as a “Christian libertarian” recently explained why he knew that the President is wrong about mass deportations. “If it took the Germans less than four years to rid themselves of six million Jews, many of whom spoke German and were fully integrated into German society,” he wrote, “it couldn’t possibly take more than eight years to deport 12 million illegal aliens, many of whom don’t speak English and are not integrated into American society.”
Assuming that civilized Americans are not prepared to contemplate a “final solution,” then someday we may realize that massive human migrations require substantial solutions. What we need is a hemispheric development effort to improve wages and social conditions in Mexico and Central America. But there are domestic policies that could also prove effective.
The first step would be to inflict serious penalties on large employers, such as the meatpacking industry, that exploit illegal labor. Make those lawbreakers shoulder the extra fiscal burden of education, health care and law enforcement that falls on cities and towns. The next step would be to break down the barriers to labor organizing in those same industries. Make sure that workers are free and unafraid to join unions, as they are supposed to be in a Western democracy, regardless of their immigration status.
Over time, such measures would change the incentives that currently encourage industry to abuse illegal immigrants and flout the law. Real reform wouldn’t please the lobbyists and corporate political donors, but it might just work.