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`Fencing' in Bush on Immigration

By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Question: Who has the most influence with President Bush on the volatile issue of immigration reform?

(A) The employing elites who are addicted to the cheap and docile labor pool that illegal immigrants provide?

(B) The working-class and middle-class voters, including many legal immigrants, in the Republican Party's base who are frustrated with the lax controls on illegals?

(C) The mostly minority backlash voters who, if Congress passes the sort of a tough, enforcement-only immigration bill that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) suggests, could cost the Grand Old Party support in Florida and Southwestern states for years to come?

As with the recent attempted sale of some American seaport operations to the United Arab Emirates, the president's happy talk about his proposed guest-worker program is facing hard midterm election-year questions from Republicans in Congress, prodded by nervousness and outrage from their political base back home.

"Guest worker" means that foreigners would be allowed to gain legal status in the U.S. for a set amount of time to do specific jobs, then return home without the automatic path to citizenship that true amnesty would provide.

But Frist, who may be weighing his own presidential ambitions, surprised many by proposing an alternative bill that tightens border controls without creating the guest-worker program that the president wants.

Already passed in the House is Rep. James Sensenbrenner's (R-Wis.) radical proposal for a 700-mile system of Berlin-style walls along the Mexican-U.S. border. The idea, you may remember, was widely ridiculed as "Patrick Buchanan's spite fence" when the conservative columnist proposed it during his presidential campaigns in the 1990s. It is a sign of our times that the House approved it overwhelmingly in December.

Sensenbrenner's bill also would declare millions of undocumented immigrants to be "aggravated felons" and threaten anyone who assists them with jail time. Technically that could include priests, nuns and other nice people who give immigrants a helping hand. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) charged that the bill "would literally criminalize the good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself." Clinton bashers predictably howled at her cheekiness, even though she's right.

Nevertheless, rising partisanship should not divert our eyes away from the real prize, a sensible immigration policy. You don't have to be anti-immigrant to oppose illegal immigration. You only have to be anti-lawbreaking.

As much as Americans should welcome the contributions that immigrants continue to make to this country's growth and dynamism, the inflow should be orderly. Immigration policy should be defined by reasoned debate, not by a chaotic daily death-defying dash across the border by the most desperate.

Nor should we throw open the doors and say "Y'all come" without considering the impact that new job seekers will have on the job seekers--and jobholders--who already are here.

Bush continues to say that his guest-worker program would match foreign workers with American employers, "when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs." I continue to wonder how hard those employers are looking.

As I have written before, there's hardly any job that Americans won't fill if you offer decent pay. But why offer more pay when you're seeking someone to work your fields, baby-sit your kids, tend your garden, work your factory, bus your restaurant tables, lay your bricks or put up your drywall, when you can hire an illegal worker who will work longer hours for less money and with less complaint?

As a result, millions of undocumented immigrants have gained an economic foothold on the American dream while millions of the sort of people who used to fill those jobs, particularly undereducated black men, languish on street corners.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, which politely calls them "unauthorized workers," illegal immigrants make up about a fourth of all drywall and ceiling-tile installers in the U.S., about a fourth of all meat and poultry workers and a fourth of all restaurant dishwashers. Truth be told, it is not a desperate need by America's employers that draws most illegal immigrants here. It is the higher income that they can make here than for the same type of work back home.

America's lax immigration enforcement of recent decades would be far more tolerable if the government and the private sector did more to "make work pay" for legal low-wage American workers. That's what Clinton-era Labor Secretary Robert Reich called programs like low-income tax credits that make it easier for low-wage workers to support themselves and their families. Unfortunately, of all the people who have clout with President Bush on the volatile issue of immigration, low-income legal American workers don't seem to rank very high. Perhaps the "spite-fence" fans will have better luck.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

(C) 2006 Chicago Tribune | Distributed By Tribune Media Services

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