December 4, 2005
Bush's Competing Messages on Immigration

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.

SAN DIEGO -- President Bush was talking tough recently during a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border.

At least it was someone who looked a lot like President Bush. I have my doubts. It sounded more like Pat Buchanan.

This is the same George Bush who, while he was governor of Texas, defended bilingual education and still delights in addressing Latino audiences in Spanish. And here he was talking about how immigrants had ``an obligation to learn ... the English language.''

This is the same president who has repeatedly praised the contributions of immigrants who ``do jobs that Americans won't do'' and noted that ``family values don't stop at the Rio Grande.'' The same president who, in a speech at Ellis Island two months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, spoke these words: ``Immigration is not a problem to be solved. It is a sign of a confident and successful nation. And people who seek to make America their home should be met in that spirit by representatives of our government. New arrivals should be greeted not with suspicion and resentment, but with openness and courtesy.''

Now, apparently having decided that there is a problem, Bush traveled to the border to ``make it clear that when people violate immigration laws, they're going to be sent home, and they need to stay at home.'' He then proceeded to spell out various ways in which the administration was going to make it easier for illegal immigrants to be apprehended, detained and deported.

Bush's extreme makeover is obviously part of an attempt to pander to the cultural right and the closed-border crowd. It's a futile attempt because, as long as the president holds on to the idea of turning more than 10 million illegal immigrants into ``temporary workers'' (Bush-speak for ``amnesty''), the anti-illegal-immigration crusaders will never go along with anything the president proposes.

At first, these competing messages on immigration don't sound all that compatible. But there is one way to reconcile them. It could be said that while Bush thinks immigrants are beneficial to society and should be welcomed, he's only talking about legal immigrants. When it comes to illegal immigrants, Bush could take the harder line, saying, as he did at the border, that they should be apprehended and sent home.

Fair enough. But, if this were the case, then that would suggest Bush is a real law-and-order guy with zero tolerance for lawbreakers. Trouble is, we already know this isn't true. Bush failed to dedicate at least a few words of his speech in Tucson to the one enforcement mechanism that stands a chance of curbing illegal immigration -- stiffening penalties against employers who unlawfully hire undocumented immigrants.

In a speech that touched on an assortment of enforcement measures, Bush seemed to go out of his way to avoid any mention of stiffening employer sanctions. The closest the president came were a few vague references to the need for ``better work site enforcement,'' but he immediately followed that with a promise to help businesses ``abide by the law.''

Is Bush kidding? Help businesses abide by the law? That assumes all businesses are acting in good faith. What about those employers who have no interest in following the law because they've become accustomed to the profits to be made by hiring illegal immigrant workers at bargain basement wages?

How could someone such as Bush, who has always seemed to have such a realistic grasp on why illegal immigrants do what they do, be so cavalier about why some employers do what they do?

I think it's because Bush, in his heart, doesn't really believe in punishing those who hire illegal immigrants. The president has had a tough year, and his relationship with social conservatives could stand some improvement. So he went to the border. But I think that if the MBA president had his way, this would be defined as a mutually beneficial business transaction between a willing employer and a willing worker, and government would keep its nose out of it.

In any case, without cracking down on employers, Bush's immigration reform effort isn't worth much, and certainly not all the chest-thumping the president did in promoting it.

I have nothing against politicians posing for photo-ops at the border. But we've had plenty of that already. What we could use is honesty and courage, and politicians who approach this issue with ample reserves of both.

© 2005, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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