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Bush Clout on Immigration 'All Used Up'

By Froma Harrop

Immigration reform was to be George W. Bush's legacy. It's now clear that he won't have a legacy to stand on.

The president's visit to the Capitol was supposed to restart the immigration "grand bargain," currently in a mid-air stall. As is his habit, he painted scary scenarios if things don't go his way. (Note how he lists the dire consequences of pulling out of the mess he created in Iraq.) On immigration, he warns that "the status quo is unacceptable."

And we can thank him for that unacceptable status quo. As America's chief executive, it was Bush's duty to enforce the laws against hiring illegal immigrants.

And for seven years, he did next to nothing. No, he did worse than nothing. In 2004, he publicly vowed to "match any willing worker with any willing employer," thus ending the tradition that stressed the interests of American labor in making immigration policy. The message was heard as intended, setting off a new surge of illegal entrants.

One recalls the famous line in the movie "Touch of Evil," when Orson Welles, a corrupt U.S. cop, asks Marlene Dietrich, a fortune-telling madam in Tijuana, to read his future. "You haven't got any," she says ominously. "Your future is all used up."

The same can be said of Bush's future as a leader on immigration reform. The president's credibility is all used up by his conscious strategy to neglect immigration enforcement -- part of a shameful drive to cheapen American labor for the advantage of business.

Bush also pulled a bait-and-switch. He always spoke of amnesty as something that would be extended to illegal aliens who've been here a long time and paid their back taxes. But the bill he supports gives amnesty to people who crashed the border as recently as six months ago, and it drops the part about back taxes.

So small wonder that Americans greet Bush's views on the immigration bill with either hostility or utter indifference. They sense that the fix is in -- that illegal-alien advocates and big business have combined with lawmakers to sell them out.

And they don't want to fall for a repeat of the 1986 grand bargain, which promised amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants in return for fines against employers who hire them. The amnesty came off, while the employer sanctions were sabotaged. The original proposal called for a computerized registry against which employers would have to verify the right of all job applicants to work in the United States. It was ditched and replaced with an "honor system" that let employers accept documents that looked OK to them. Thus, a new era of counterfeiting was born.

Here's a simple idea to build public support for an immigration compromise: Have Congress pass the part of the bill that would force employers to check all new hires' eligibility to work in the United States with a database (and fine those who don't). Once that's being done to the public's satisfaction, we can discuss what to do about the illegal immigrants living here and whether to increase the number of legal visas.

The latest round of threats has it that if Congress doesn't pass comprehensive immigration reform right away, the issue will get lost in the upcoming presidential campaigns. Wrong. On the contrary, the American people will have the opportunity to press the candidates on what they would do about a matter that affects their wages, health care, taxes and the environment.

There are worse things than the status quo. Bush has shown time and again that he knows how to create them. Now, if he would only just go away.

Copyright 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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