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Bush's immigration gamble

PRESIDENT BUSH could hardly have started his second term with a more surprising move, announcing he will press ahead with immigration reforms that were widely denounced, on the right and the left, when he proposed them in January. But as strange as it may seem to many Washington insiders, sometimes political leaders do things for reasons other than to be popular.

Immigration -- particularly illegal immigration -- is a difficult issue. The kinds of reforms that are needed aren't easy to explain to voters. And Bush, who risks as much as he stands to gain politically by tackling the problem, deserves credit for recognizing that the system is broken and stepping up to fix it with the only kind of reform he believes will work: a guest worker program.

Opponents of reform often attack it as mere pandering -- or, as the put-down goes, "Hispandering." The implication being that changes of the kind the president has in mind aren't good for the nation but only for one interest group -- Hispanic voters.

This is far from a sure-fire strategy. For one thing, according to most polls, few Hispanics vote on the basis of a candidate's stance on immigration. Many of these voters are now second-generation Americans, and surveys show that they care most about the same issues as their Anglo countrymen: the economy, education, values, security. Immigration trails far down the list. At best, opinion research suggests, they see immigration as a threshold issue: They mistrust politicians who are overtly hostile to newcomers, and a candidate's sympathetic stance may persuade them to consider his views on other questions. But doing the right thing on immigration is rarely enough to close the deal.

True, an immigration initiative could conceivably pay off over the long term. Hispanics -- even second- and third-generation Hispanics -- could react to an overhaul much as blacks reacted to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, flocking all but permanently to the party that passed the landmark legislation. But that's not how Hispanics reacted to President Reagan's equally sweeping immigration reforms in the mid-1980s, and the remote possibility that they will do so now hardly seems like an argument for bucking a majority of Anglo voters.

So why is Bush taking on the thankless issue of immigration? I believe it is because he sees the consequences for all Americans of our current dysfunctional policy. Not just Hispanics but all Americans suffer when entire industries -- agriculture, hospitality, food processing, landscaping, healthcare, construction -- can't find the workers they need to grow and are forced to operate outside the law. Not just Hispanics but all Americans lose when our border becomes an international joke, something the world knows we can't or won't enforce. All Americans face increased risks when we lose the ability to verify the identities of those in our midst.

And we should all be concerned for our democratic values when we find ourselves farming out our dirtiest, least-dignified jobs to a permanent underclass of foreign workers -- people who, because of their illegal status, can rarely hope to become full-fledged Americans.

By and large, immigration is good for the country. Driven here mostly by economic supply and demand, immigrants do jobs that need to be done, and they bring much-needed vitality and patriotic spirit. The costs arise when immigrants come illegally, undermining the rule of law. So why not maximize the benefits of immigration while easing the costs associated with an illegal flow by giving the migrant laborers who now come illicitly an orderly, legal way to enter the country.

The challenge for the president will be to explain this to the public, and that may not be easy. But that's not the same as impossible. After all, most people are open to changes -- even counterintuitive changes -- that turn out to be in their self-interest.

Survey after survey of Anglo voters show that when it comes to immigration what they want is for the government to take control of the border. They want to restore the rule of law and enforce it, and that is exactly what the president's reform plan promises. Enforcement alone will not solve the problem. We've tried that, cracking down sharply on the border, for over a decade now. Attempting to enforce an impractical, over-reaching law -- in this case, unrealistic quotas -- never works.

But a new, realistic law, backed up by smarter enforcement on the border and in the workplace, can do the job. That's the case the president must make to the public, not because it's politic but because it's right -- and in the end, that will persuade voters.

Tamar Jacoby is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. 

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