Speaking like a president

PRESIDENT BUSH CAME TO Orange County on Monday to speak about the need for immigration reform. His address was forceful, eloquent and timely. But he may have to do even more to get Congress to pass legislation that not only improves border enforcement but also legalizes the flow of labor the U.S. relies on.

Bush is obviously moved by the human tragedy underlying the legislative debates in Washington. Referring to illegal immigrants, he said: “We got smugglers … putting them in the back of 18-wheelers, stuffing human beings in the back of trucks, because people are coming to do jobs Americans won’t do. They’re putting people out in deserts. We’ve lost a lot of people, a lot of decent, hardworking people, trying to come in this country in the desert, losing their lives.” Most interesting, Bush went on to say: “See, we made it such that an underground industry thrives on human beings, people coming to do work that the Americans will not do.”

We made it so. That’s a formulation that too often gets lost in the debate about amnesty or penalties for the illegal workers. The president noted that American society has chosen to set up a system that relies on immigrants without giving them legal status.

The president has always been on the right side of the immigration debate, but he has refused for too long to wade into the legislative wrangling. With Congress now weighing a disastrous House bill passed in December and a sensible but imperfect proposal in the Senate, Bush no longer has the luxury of remaining above the fray.

It was refreshing to see him clearly embrace the Senate approach in Irvine. Bush’s speech read like an endorsement of the proposal put forth by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), legislation that would strengthen enforcement at the border and workplace, create a guest-worker program and offer legal residency (and the possibility of citizenship) to the millions of undocumented workers already here, provided they pay a fine, undergo a background check and learn English.

Before adjourning for Easter two weeks ago, the Senate was considering a compromise variation of McCain-Kennedy that would distinguish among illegal immigrants in this country more than five years, those here between two and five years, and everyone else. This is an impractical deal that may be politically necessary but is needlessly cumbersome in the real world. Bush called it “interesting.”

Still, it’s a better approach than the House proposal, which would turn illegal immigrants into felons, send everyone home and close the border, while pretending that those millions of workers aren’t indispensable to the U.S. economy. The president needs to make clear he would veto such a nonsensical bill, and he needs to heed the call of senators from both parties who are asking him to become involved.

This is a controversial issue for a president with low approval ratings. But Bush can hardly afford to run away from his long-held convictions. He needs to assert himself, and Monday’s speech was a good start.