When President Bush signed the Homeland Security Appropriations Act six weeks ago, he did it in the East Room of the White House in a glossy ceremony befitting an occasion of Republican unity. Which is what it was, right up to the moment when Bush started talking about illegal immigrants.
"They want to provide for their families," he said sympathetically. "Family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River. People are coming to put food on the table."
He went on to plug his proposal for a "guest worker" program to allow illegals, in the United States or abroad, to work here and even stay permanently. A number of Republicans at the event were furious. They want to secure America's southern border tightly. But Bush's ideas about turning unlawful immigrants into American citizens are anathema to them.
So the Republican rift on immigration endures. Ten days before the ceremony, 82 House Republicans had written the president, urging him to push for immigration legislation to beef up border security — but nothing more. Bush's comments at the signing ceremony amounted to a flat rejection of their appeal. Indeed, the president begins a public campaign this week to take on the entire immigration issue — the border, the need for foreign workers, the 11 million illegal immigrants already living here — all at once.
It's an ambitious undertaking, especially for a president suffering from a dip in popularity and influence. And there are many obstacles to success in the House and the Senate. Still, achieving comprehensive immigration reform is possible. Bush will need a few breaks and a few new allies. But the good news is that he has a strategy.
Imagine what finally dealing boldly with America's immigration problem could do. Slashing the number of border crossings by illegal immigrants would be only the first step. A guest worker program would provide a lawful way for illegals to work here, solving a job crisis for American business and potentially reducing the incentive for illegal entry. The most difficult part would be creating a path to citizenship for those who came to the United States illegally but before a cutoff date.
For Republicans, immigration reform could be a saving issue in the 2006 midterm election. With Social Security reform off the table for now, immigration is America's most urgent domestic problem. And if handled sensitively, it would not reverse the drift of Hispanic voters to the Republican Party. Democrats, of course, may try to disrupt Bush's efforts, as they tried in 2003 when he won a Medicare prescription drug benefit. But since his ideas on immigration are close to theirs, they're more likely to go along.
Two decades ago, immigration reform failed, at least in blocking illegal immigration. It lacked a safety valve for illegals — a guest worker program — and its aftermath was marked by inadequate border security and lax enforcement of the law barring employers from hiring illegals.
To succeed this time, Bush and his congressional allies will have to pull off an unlikely three-cushion shot and overcome several challenges along the way. The president will have to exert public and private pressure. Two Republicans will have to step up as leaders — Senator John Cornyn of Texas and James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. And the entire effort will have to be carried out in the politically safe context of tightening America's southern border.