Immigration -- Bush's domestic Iraq

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MAINSTREAM editorialists like to praise President Bush's immigration initiative as an expression of his pragmatic, bipartisan, "compassionate conservative" side, in presumed contrast to the inflexible, ideological approach that produced the invasion of Iraq. But far from being a sensible centrist departure from the sort of grandiose, rigid thinking that led Bush into Iraq, "comprehensive immigration reform" is of a piece with that thinking. And it's likely to lead to a parallel outcome.

Here are 10 similarities:

1. They're both ideas Bush had when he came into office. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote about his first Oval Office meeting with Bush, a few weeks into Bush's presidency, at which the president explained his "determination to dig Saddam Hussein out of power in Iraq." About the same time, Bush was meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox to try to hammer out an immigration deal that would combine a guest worker program with legalization of existing illegal Mexican immigrants. (This was all before 9/11, although in both cases Bush has claimed that 9/11 made essential what he wanted to do all along. Funny how that happens.)

2. They both have an idealistic basis. Bush was sympathetic to the way Middle East democrats had been frustrated by "realist" foreign policies, and he's clearly sympathetic to the problems of poor immigrants who come to the U.S. to work and feed their families, only to be forced to live "in the shadows." Those who have doubts about Bush's plans (e.g., Brent Scowcroft on Iraq) get little sympathy from him, however. They're seen not as prudent realists but as cultural imperialists, even racists: What, you think Iraqis are incapable of democracy? What, you think the immigrants from south of the border are any different from previous immigrants?

3. They both seek, in one swoop, to achieve a grand solution to a persistent, difficult problem. No "smallball!" The Iraq Project was going to begin the transformation of the Middle East, an area that had frustrated president after president. Similarly, "comprehensive" immigration reform would, as the name suggests, resolve in one bold bill the centuries-old immigration issue — "solve this problem once and for all," as Bush said last week.

4. Both envision a complicated, triple-bank-shot chain of events happening on cue. Iraqis were going to be grateful to their American liberators, come together in peace and give us a stable "ally in the war on terror," setting off a democratic domino effect in the region — a scenario that seems like highly wishful thinking in retrospect. Latinos, in the Bush immigration scenario, will be grateful to Republicans for bringing them out of the shadows, etc., ensuring a large, growing GOP Latino vote for decades to come. Meanwhile, a program of legal guest workers will somehow stop new illegal workers from crossing the border to join them.

5. Both depend crucially on pulling off difficult administrative feats. In Iraq, we had to build a nation in the chaotic vacuum of sectarian post-Hussein Iraq — which meant training a national army and police force from scratch with recruits who were often sectarian loyalists. "Comprehensive" immigration reform requires the government to set up an enforcement mechanism that can prevent millions of impoverished foreigners from sneaking across thousands of miles of unprotected borders — and prevent America's millions of self-interested employers from hiring them. Meanwhile, the overworked, incompetent federal immigration bureaucracy is going to efficiently sort out the 12 million illegals already here — "Non-Immigrants Previously in Unlawful Status," to use the official Prince-like euphemism — running background checks by the next business day and issuing each of them a new, "probationary Z-visa."

6. In both cases, the solution has failed before. The British failed to "stand up" democracy in Iraq. We failed to do the same in Vietnam and also failed to establish stable, trans-factional governing structures in Lebanon and Somalia. Likewise, the grand, bipartisan Simpson-Mazzoli immigration reform of 1986 had promised, and failed, to establish an effective immigration enforcement mechanism.

7. In both cases, some Bush plan enthusiasts may not really mind a chaotic end result. Iraq war foes argue that some important neocon supporters of the Iraq war weren't really bothered by the prospect of Sunni-versus-Shiite warfare — even seeing divide-and-conquer advantages. Similarly, there's the suspicion that many supporters of Bush's immigration plan won't really be bothered if the enforcement parts of the law fail to stop the flow of new illegals. Employers, for one, would get additional inexpensive, willing workers.

8. In both cases, less grand, less risky alternatives are available. Bush could have kept Saddam Hussein boxed up while he planned regime change through other means and pursued the more manageable war in Afghanistan. ("Smallball" in 2002. Sounds good now!) Similarly, Bush could put enforcement mechanisms in place and make sure they work before he potentially stimulates a huge new wave of illegal immigrants by rewarding those illegals who've already made it across the border.

9. In both cases, Bush's sales pitch excludes these middle alternatives. With Hussein, it was war or capitulation. With immigration, we're told, the only choices are legalization or mass deportation.

10. In both cases the consequences of losing the grand Bush bet are severe. Bush himself is busy these days describing the debacle that his big Iraq bet has now made possible: a government "overrun by extremists on all sides … an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by Al Qaeda." Possibly "the entire region could be drawn into the conflict."

The equivalent disaster scenario on immigration would go something like this: "Comprehensive reform" passes. The 12 million illegals are legalized as planned. But the untested enforcement provisions prove no more effective than they've been in the past — or else they are crippled by ACLU-style lawsuits and lobbying (as in the past). Legal guest workers enter the country to work, but so do millions of new illegal workers, drawn by the near-certain prospect that they too, some day, will be considered too numerous to deport. Soon we have another 12 million illegals, or more. Wages for unskilled low-income American and immigrant workers are depressed. As a result, in parts of L.A., visible contrasts of wealth and poverty reach near-Latin American levels.

And, yes, the majority of the new illegals are from one country, Mexico — a nation with a not-implausible claim on large chunks of the Southwestern U.S. For the first time, a neighboring country will have a continuing hold on the loyalties — and language — of a majority of residents in some states, with the potential for Quebec-like problems, and worse, down the road.

Hey, stuff happens!

If both grand Bush plans fail, which disaster will be bigger? Iraq, obviously, at least in the sense that tens of thousands will have died. But we can retreat from Iraq. We won't be able to retreat from the failure of Bush's immigration plan because it will change who "we" are.

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