No Bush, no border reform

President bush’s so-called leadership on immigration reform came up Tuesday at a revealing Senate hearing on the issue. In opening remarks, Arlen Specter, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said immigration had been “addressed by the president in a major speech on Jan. 7 of 2004.” So it was. Unfortunately, 18 months later and counting, there has been no White House follow-up to report.

If Specter’s tone was half-mocking, it’s because he was annoyed that the administration had canceled the appearance of Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff before the committee.

There is no mystery as to what Chao and Chertoff would have said. Chao’s department projects a 10-million-worker shortfall in the U.S. in 2010. As for Chertoff, two weeks ago he said it was essential to our national security to bring millions out of the undocumented shadows. So why is the White House running away from its own views?

It’s baffling, really, this timidity of Bush on the subject. He seems to genuinely believe that an overhaul of the nation’s dysfunctional immigration laws is an economic, moral and security imperative. Immigration is politically radioactive for a vocal minority, it’s true, but it isn’t as if the man who took on the democratization of the Middle East and a partial privatization of Social Security runs away from the tough fights.


In any event, Specter churlishly said at the hearing: “We’re going to do our work. And when the administration wants to chime in, we’ll be ready to listen.” The work at hand was assessing two competing Senate immigration bills, one proposed by John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass), the other by Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas). It wasn’t much of a contest. The bipartisan McCain-Kennedy bill (which has the support of some conservative Republicans, for those of you who don’t think anything sponsored by McCain and a Democrat deserves to be called “bipartisan”) is more grounded in reality.

Both measures share the same basic premise -- that the U.S. is in need of immigrant workers, and that it’s unhealthy to meet this need with a black market of labor made up of millions of people who are here illegally. Both bills would dramatically increase the level of legal immigration to reflect economic reality, and they invest in border security and workplace verification systems to make it harder for the undocumented to be employed in the future.

One major difference between the bills has to do with the extent to which new temporary-worker programs would allow for permanent residence and eventual citizenship for those workers. Another crucial difference has to do with transferring the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now here into a legal framework while acknowledging two conflicting realities: (a) Politically, no one in Washington wants to be seen as rewarding those who break the law, and (b) economically, we rely on these people. McCain and Kennedy would make those here illegally pay a fine and wait longer for permanent residence. That’s barely punitive, in part to assuage the concerns of U.S. employers (remember, this is a crime with an accomplice) who don’t want to lose workers.

Kyl and Cornyn offer a tougher approach that may seem more politically palatable, but is laughably impractical. Their proposal would force undocumented workers to go back to their countries of origin before they could be granted a visa. McCain mocked this as a “report to deport” program: “To say that they’re going to come out of the shadows and say, ‘Send me back to Guatemala; I’ve been living in Phoenix for 50 years,’ borders on fantasy.”


But the most important witness at the hearing turned out to be Hal Daub, a former congressman who now heads the American Health Care Assn. The industry he represents is clearly alarmed by the Kyl-Cornyn approach. Deporting illegal healthcare workers would be “disruptive to the delivery of quality care. It would cause a deterioration in the quality of that care,” he said. By the end of the hearing, Cornyn was in full retreat, saying that maybe an illegal worker’s “trip” home could be short enough to ensure no disruption in his employment. So the punishment turns into a vacation?

This all lends credence to the theory that the Kyl-Cornyn bill is a tactical gambit -- backed by the White House -- to produce a compromise bill that preserves the essence of McCain-Kennedy with a tougher veneer, so that it can be more easily sold to a skeptical House. Whatever the case, it’s Bush himself who’ll have to do the selling.