The right words

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THE MOST IMPORTANT MESSAGE in President Bush’s frequently eloquent prime-time address Monday also was the most vague: “An immigration reform bill needs to be comprehensive, because all elements of this problem must be addressed together, or none of them will be solved at all.”

The president’s chances of goading a divided Congress into action before the Memorial Day recess rest largely on whether he can convince wary members of his party that the enhanced border-security measures he described must go hand in hand with legalizing millions of illegal residents and with creating a guest worker program for future migrants. There can be no meaningful security, as he said, when at least 11 million people live “beyond the reach and protection of American law”; nor can enforcement alone discourage eager workers from emigrating.

Bush’s speech contained a lot of the right words, as usual on this issue, but (again as usual) the specifics were not quite there. Trying to end the catch-and-release program of deporting undocumented criminals to their home countries is surely a laudable goal, but announcing it is not nearly as effective as actually funding overwhelmed state detention facilities. Acknowledging the “enormous pressure on our border that walls and patrols alone will not stop” is an important step, but so is slashing the inhumane waiting times for foreigners who try to immigrate lawfully.


But the centerpiece of the speech was the plan to deploy as many as 6,000 National Guard troops along the border. Republican skeptics, especially in the House of Representatives, have tried for years to “fix the border first,” then get around to the business of tinkering with visa policy and enforcement. It is a sign of their political strength, and of how close Bush has come to losing control over this contentious issue, that the president is suddenly making loud noises about the need for troops.

Such tough talk may be necessary to win the support of wavering Republicans such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. (House members such as Tom Tancredo of Colorado are a lost cause.) The House has passed an immigration bill that is reactionary and punitive; the Senate will be debating a flawed yet far more promising bill over the next two weeks. If the president’s speech serves as political cover for Republican moderates to support comprehensive reform, then it will have served a useful purpose.

Six years have taught us that the president employs talented speechwriters. The doubts are more about the gap between his rhetoric and action. The president has given the process some much-needed direction, urgency and even a moral framework. We’ll soon know whether his intervention came too late.