Bush Needs to Imitate Clinton to Solve Immigration

It might be like asking the Red Sox to learn from the Yankees, New York to emulate L.A. or Madonna to swipe a move from Britney. But if President Bush wants to advance the ambitious overhaul of federal immigration policy he's considering, the best way might be to take a lesson from the GOP's bete noire, Bill Clinton.

Clinton understood that the key to breaking the stalemate on many polarizing domestic issues was to marry ideas that had long been considered incompatible. Indeed, Clinton repeatedly demonstrated that seemingly conflicting approaches could complement each other, not only politically but also substantively.

On crime, Clinton fused the conservative demand for more cops and prisons with the liberal push for "prevention" programs and produced the 1993 crime bill. On welfare, Clinton triggered the process that led to the historic 1996 reform law by insisting that the system had to both demand work from recipients and provide them more training and day-care services. Each time, Clinton created a coalition by bridging an outdated divide.

Immigration reform demands the same creativity. The Bush administration's disclosure that it is weighing the biggest immigration policy changes in 15 years has electrified a static debate. But the two parties enter this discussion with very different priorities.

Ironically, that became painfully clear at a press briefing Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) called last week to show the bipartisan support for reform. Daschle and two other Senate Democrats--Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Harry Reid of Nevada--urged a sweeping legalization program for as many as 8.5 million immigrants already in the United States. Meanwhile, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a leading Republican voice on immigration, spoke solely about the need for a program to bring in new guest workers and provide "for the safe and legal movement of people between the borders." Someone had stuck a sign on the podium that read "Juntos Adelante . . . forward together." By the time the senators had finished, it sounded as if they couldn't even agree on which direction was forward.

Here's where the Clinton experience on crime--and especially welfare--offers a compass. As at least some key Bush advisors understand, the best way to advance immigration reform is to link these contrasting Republican and Democratic priorities. In a Congress so closely divided, neither a guest worker program nor a wholesale legalization of the undocumented has much chance of passing on its own. The Democratic Senate (backed by organized labor) would surely block the former, while the Republican House (backed by business) would kill the latter. Only a bill that combines both ideas might build a coalition broad enough to pass. "There's no way this is going to work unless it's bipartisan, and it's not going to be bipartisan unless there's a package," says John Gay, co-chairman of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a business group urging a guest worker legalization deal.

For both sides, such a grand bargain makes sense not only politically but also in practice. Legalizing the illegal immigrants already here would provide employers a more stable and reliable work force, but it will take a guest worker program to address business complaints of worker shortages, particularly in low-wage service jobs. And while legalization would meet the humanitarian concerns of labor and religious groups about the undocumented workers now living in the shadows, it does nothing to turn off the future flow of illegal Mexican migrants who face danger in the crossing and exploitation upon arrival.

Done right, an expanded guest worker program could impose standards, order and safeguards on a migration process now disgraced by the absence of all three. "Folks are going to come," says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group. "The question is, do they come with rights or not?"

On all of these fronts, devils lurk in every detail. On the guest worker side, Daschle last week signaled that any plan will have to provide temporary workers with the same wage and occupational safety protections as U.S. workers, plus the opportunity to join unions and the right to change employers. Labor and church groups will also insist that guest workers who want to stay have the opportunity to earn citizenship.

As for illegal immigrants already in the United States, Republicans, including the administration, may agree with Democrats that they should be allowed to work here legally. But Bush will likely support a much more limited opportunity than Democrats prefer for those workers to become full-fledged citizens. On both issues, it won't be easy for either side to meet the other's concerns.

Yet for all those challenges, the conditions may be coalescing for a historic deal. The alignment starts with Bush, who since his days in Texas has demonstrated a commitment to creating a more welcoming and humane culture for immigrants. It continues with Mexican President Vicente Fox, who's signaled that he would add a third element to a grand bargain by stiffening Mexico's efforts against further illegal immigration if the two nations negotiate a guest worker-legalization deal.

An American economy near full employment has sharpened the business demand for new temporary workers to the point where many key employers (like Gay's coalition) appear willing to accept more of the safeguards Democrats such as Daschle are demanding. At the same time, organized labor has reversed its long-standing opposition to legalization; the unions now see undocumented workers less as a source of competition for U.S. jobs than as a vast pool of potential members. Finally, politicians in both parties are increasingly searching for initiatives that can appeal to the burgeoning Latino population.

Like Clinton on welfare reform, Bush would surely face resistance from his party's most ideological elements if he pursues a grand bargain on immigration. But the immigration debate offers Bush as profound an opportunity as Clinton seized with welfare to change his party's image, build a new consensus on a divisive issue and extend a hand to millions of people struggling on the economy's lowest rungs. This may be a rare case in which politics and economics point in the same direction as compassion and justice.

Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times' Web site at: http://www.latimes.com/brownstein.

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