Bush Presidency Dies at Border

How the administration lost control of the immigration debate


"I don't think there should be a St Patrick's Day," anti-immigrant television celebrity Lou Dobbs announced yesterday. Speaking to National Council of La Raza president Janet Murguia on the topic of immigration reform, the CNN personality continued, "I don't care who you are. I think we should be celebrating what's common in this country."

To call this a Maoist sentiment would be a compliment. It's a line of thinking more suited to such parodies of spiteful collectivist ideology as Napoleon the Pig, the hamfisted dictatorship in V For Vendetta, or the Blue Meanies. The conversation from which the above quotation is taken draws from another collectivist presumption central to the immigration backlash: that all bounty is granted not by individual initiative but by state largess. Ethnic identity is a threat because it overburdens our "health care system," our social services, our labor unions, and our entitlement programs—all the things that make America great! And Dobbs is a leading light in the campaign against "the invasion across our southern border." Against this kind of feeble intellectual artillery, it shouldn't be too hard for a moderate, immigration-friendly president to win out, should it?

Apparently so. President Bush, having developed in his second term a preternatural talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, appears to have lost any semblance of control over the debate on immigration. The compromise immigration reform bill that crawled out of the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday (without even attracting a majority of the committee's Republicans) delivers none of the red meat fans of the punitive House bill 4437 want. Worse still is that the bill's GOP co-sponsor is Arizona Sen. John McCain, which means that once again Bush and his old enemy will be handcuffed together against a hostile universe, in a remake of The Defiant Ones that's even more boring and improbable than the original. And the entire Senate compromise appears likely to get an expedited removal from majority leader Bill Frist.

Most telling is the atmosphere of caution and retreat amid which Bush introduced his humbler guest-worker proposal yesterday. The president is often criticized for being inflexible and unwilling to admit his mistakes, but this is inaccurate: It's just that he saves his admissions of wrongness for times when he's actually right.

Yesterday's naturalization speech was the work of a chastened politician, a safety-first shade of the relatively confident presentation Bush gave in 2004, when he introduced his temporary-worker proposal. Evidence from the language: The 2004 speech contained a whopping 52 instances of the word "work," "workers," "working," etc., three references to "terror" or derivations thereof, and a mere five references to "securing" or "security." In yesterday's speech, these figures were reversed, with 26 "works," five "terrors," and 14 "securities." In 2004, Bush mentioned "force" five times (one of those as part of "workforce") and "border" ten times; yesterday, those numbers had gone to 17 and 26, respectively. Both speeches mention "amnesty" only in a negative context, but yesterday Bush took the trouble to denounce the concept four times. Not that this last part helped: H.R.4437 sponsor Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and all like-minded pundits immediately dismissed the diminished temp-worker program as a Trojan Horse for amnesty.

As Jesse James DeConto demonstrated recently in Reason, life as a guest worker is grueling enough even under the present system to make outrage over an expanded program seem pretty bizarre. But the popular notion that the open Mexican border leaves America vulnerable to terrorist infiltration is even less supportable—and not only because of the obvious truth that none of the 9/11 hijackers had to sneak across the Rio Grande to get here. During two world wars and a 45-year cold war, the Germans and Soviets never made use of the southern border (even less protected then than it is now) in appreciable numbers. As ways to deliver spies and saboteurs, embassy staffs, local ethnic communities, even the absurd medium of mini-submarines, were considered preferable to the great southern desert. There may be reasons to ensure that all cross-border traffic passes through entryways that are firmly under the vertical, centralized control of the federal government. Terrorist infiltration is not one of them.

Partly due to political reality, partly through his own rhetorical missteps, Bush is in no position to cut through any of the nonsense that informs the debate. He must, for example, insist on the hard distinction between "legal" and "illegal" immigration, thus neglecting a truth known to everybody who's ever dealt with the American immigration apparatus, including the current governor of California: that everybody gets out of status sooner or later, that the immigration bureaucracy punishes people who play by the rules and is almost impossible not to violate. Bush, our age's greatest exponent of the Great Society and the imperial presidency, is in no position to take a skeptical role toward federal competence. Ronald Reagan's forward-looking attitude toward immigration is easy to romanticize (dig this 1984 exchange between the Gipper and Fritz Mondale for a less lofty perspective), but the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 fit into a general philosophy of decentralization to which Bush has never been fully committed.

But I don't want to place too much blame on the current president, who most likely could not have mastered this situation even under the best of circumstances. The monster of immigration panic seizes the country when and how it wants to, and finds its justifications afterward. The unruly backlash (or counterbacklash) in Los Angeles this weekend has guaranteed that the discussion from now on will be dominated on both sides by madcaps and demagogues. Yesterday morning Fox News was reporting that protesters were burning U.S. flags, but by afternoon that claim had been downgraded to instances where Mexican flags outnumbered American flags (the proximate cause of Dobbs' anti–St. Patrick's Day arabesque). The immigration controversy is escalating in stupidity if nothing else—a struggle between Kennedys and Sensenbrenners, border vigilantes and street demagogues, Lou Dobbs and La Raza. It's no wonder why people keep coming to this country, but why would anybody want to be president of it?