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.
Things get trickier at the second cushion — the Senate in 2006. Majority Leader Bill Frist advocates a "build out" on top of border security. This would mean adding a guest worker program and addressing the issue of illegal immigrants living in the United States. Frist is wary of relying on Democratic votes. His minimum requirement is that a majority of Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee vote for the measures.
This makes Cornyn an important player. Elected in 2002, he emerged quickly as an influential senator and leader of conservative Republicans with close ties to the president. And as a native of San Antonio, he has a deep interest in immigration. But to become the pivotal senator on immigration, he will have to back a compromise and persuade other conservative senators to follow his lead. At the moment, Cornyn supports the requirement that guest workers return home after their work is finished. Bush, Republicans such as Senator John McCain of Arizona, and most Democrats oppose that. They would give workers the right to stay and seek citizenship. And their support is crucial to ultimate passage.
Dealing with the fate of the 11 million illegals currently residing in the United States is even more difficult. The Senate initially must decide to include them in the immigration bill. Then, senators must reach agreement on a cutoff date, after which illegal immigrants will not be eligible for citizenship. Finally, they must choose the tests — such as employment, fluency in English, a willingness to be fingerprinted, and payment of back taxes — that illegals seeking citizenship must pass. Here again, Cornyn could be the key figure.
Once a comprehensive immigration bill clears the Senate, it reaches the third cushion in the House. At this point, Sensenbrenner becomes important. For reform to succeed, he will have to go along with a full-scale immigration bill, and then, after it's approved by the conference, support it aggressively. Speaker Denny Hastert is said to favor the comprehensive approach, a boon to final House passage. But he isn't likely to proceed unless a majority of House Republicans back the bill.
Throughout the process, the president will have to be prominently involved. His clout on Capitol Hill may be diminished, but it's far from nonexistent. In particular, he has to steer Republicans away from adding two provisions that would anger Hispanic Americans and endanger their inclination to vote Republican. One egregious scheme would be to try to repeal birthright citizenship. The other would be to unleash state and local police to hunt for illegals in Hispanic neighborhoods.
Might all this turn out to be a fantasy, nothing more than presidential or Republican self-delusion? Could be. The odds on achieving total immigration reform next year are not great. Given that, the White House is ready to accept a border security bill alone in 2006 and seek a guest worker program and a citizenship plan for illegal immigrants in 2007. But that would deprive the measure of the cover of enhancing border security and make passage all the more difficult. So it's not now or never for real immigration reform, just now or maybe never.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
By Fred Barnes