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The late Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it “boob bait for bubba” — tough-sounding rhetoric designed to placate conservative voters. Moynihan applied the phrase to Bill Clinton’s 1992 pledge to “end welfare as we know it,” which it later became clear that he had no intention of following through on when he became president (eventually, Republicans pressured him into it). President Bush is offering his own “boob bait” in the form of speechifying at the border about a crackdown on illegal immigration.
It’s not that Bush doesn’t intend to use better technology to police the border and end the “catch and release” policy that waves illegals into the country, as he is now saying. But these steps are primarily meant to diminish opposition to a new guest-worker program and what would effectively be an amnesty for illegal aliens. It’s a crackdown as prelude to a letup; in other words, Rove bait for red-staters.
A Republican close to the White House has told Time how Bush wants to lull his conservative supporters into swallowing some sort of amnesty and a guest-worker program, i.e., a “comprehensive” approach: “Bush decided to give these guys their rhetorical pound of flesh. In return, he wants a comprehensive bill, which is what he has always wanted. He’s just going to lead with a lot of noise about border security.”
The idea is that the House, where conservatives have the most sway, will pass a bill with new enforcement measures, only to see the Senate pass a different bill with an amnesty and guest-worker program, which will be shoved down the throats of the House on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Supporters of tougher enforcement will have gotten their “noise,” and Bush and the business lobby will have gotten their policy. Unfortunately for this strategy, conservatives aren’t nearly as stupid as the White House political shop apparently thinks they are.
If the policy debate plays out the way the White House wants, we will have another iteration of a bizarre dynamic of American politics. Every time there is agitation about out-of-control levels of immigration, Washington acts — to preserve or increase current levels of immigration. As Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies notes, this is what happened in 1986, 1990, and 1996. The White House and the Senate want 2006 to be Act IV in the farce. Senator Arlen Specter’s version of “reform” doubles legal immigration.
The enforcement measures Bush is advocating are welcome and he finally seems to get the public’s dismay about the lawlessness of our immigration system. But the border itself is in some ways beside the point. We can put as many agents as the Minutemen could possibly want on the border and still have an illegal-immigration problem. Forty percent of illegals overstay their visas, meaning the border isn’t an issue for them. Bush and fellow supporters of a guest-worker program are right about one thing: As long as there are jobs here for illegals, they will come.
The only way to address that is through interior enforcement, which Bush made a nod toward yesterday. The natural place to start is enforcing laws already on the books. Rosemary Jenks of the group NumbersUSA has compiled a partial list of currently unenforced laws that runs to four pages. The Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service have it within their power to inform employers when they have hired illegal workers, but don’t. In 2002, the Social Security Administration sent out roughly a million “no match” letters to employers telling them workers had bogus or duplicate Social Security numbers, but business groups complained and the practice stopped.
Supporters of amnesty always ask the rhetorical question: “What are you going to do with the 11 million illegal immigrants already here — deport them all?” That is obviously impractical, but requiring employers to verify that their workers are legal would prompt many illegals to leave voluntarily and staunch the flow of new arrivals. Only after our immigration system is under better control should we discuss Bush’s proposed guest-worker program and any kind of amnesty for those illegals who are entrenched in our society. Until then, don’t take Bush’s bait.
(Posted on November 30, 2005)