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Immigration and the President's Gut

By Diana West

Now that the president has tried to revive the comatose Senate amnesty bill, at least as big a question as whether he can bring it back to life is why on earth he would want to. Sure, he wants a win, because he hasn't had one lately. Sure, he wants a (gulp) legacy, because it's that clock-ticking time in his second term. But why this particular attempted win, which his political base sees only as betrayal? Why this hoped-for legacy, which would eliminate him from any conservative pantheon?

"It's a very emotional issue." That's what the president says by way of describing the acid turmoil his "comprehensive" immigration reform push has caused, particularly among conservatives. He's right on one level, but I get the impression he makes the point to dismiss his opponents' objections as volcanic eruptions of feeling, rather than legitimate and reasonable arguments.

At the same time, immigration reform is a very emotional issue for Mr. Bush himself. Too emotional. When it comes to illegal aliens -- in particular, illegal aliens from Mexico -- the man seems to be governed by his gut. And that, of course, is no way to govern.

I say this having gone back over the immigration file that has piled up during this administration. A strong emotional thread connecting Mr. Bush to the issue comes through stories about his beloved Mexican-born housekeeper/nannies, and through stories about his political associates with Mexican roots, such as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, or campaign aide IsraelHernandez, whom,Newsweek noted last year, "Bush hired after hearing his family story." Mr. Bush just loves those family stories. No one needs a shrink's couch to imagine the inspiring effect of immigrant success stories on an establishment scion like Mr. Bush, who, while he may have had to struggle for his Texas twang, never had to struggle for much else -- at least nothing essential. From the big chair on the hacienda porch, with that "sense of Southwestern noblesse" Newsweek's Howard Fineman fancifully attributes to Mr. Bush's possible notion of himself as a hacendado (estate owner), the president's admiration seems to know few bounds. "When you grow up in Texas like... I did," Mr. Bush recently told McClatchy Newspapers, "you recognize the decency and hard work and humanity of Hispanics."

A lovely testimonial, but hardly a criterion on which to offer amnesty to some 12 to 20 million illegal aliens, even if they are mainly Hispanic. Half the world's population are undoubtedly just as decent, hard working and humane, but that doesn't qualify the non-Hispanic billions (who haven't broken innumerable U.S. laws) for citizenship -- at least not yet.

But the rosy-better, hazyview from the hacienda porch doesn't take this in. Instead, Mr. Bush not only imagines comprehensively reforming the illegal, mainly Hispanic millions into citizens, but also "assimilating" them into Americans. The president doesn't seem to have noticed that the multicultural states of America long ago junked the "assimilation" process as being "Euro-centric," "racist" and worse. Nope, he's still talking about "this system's capacity to assimilate newcomers" as though it's the Statue of Liberty's birthday -- her 50th birthday in 1936. This "capacity to assimilate," he says, "has been one of the great, powerful traditions of America. And it works. And will work this time."

It will? Question from McClatchy: "Do you think we assimilate immigrants as well as in previous waves?" Mr. Bush's answer: "Absolutely."

Obviously, Mr. Bush hasn't ridden a rush-hour bus where no English is spoken, or listened to a business office recording asking "oprima el numero dos." But not even the presidential bubble excuses him from failing to notice the cultural transformation this country has undergone over the past half century. From his inviolate state of oblivion, Mr. Bush views "a backlash against newcomers" as being the only conceivable threat to the assimilation process -- and more. "I am deeply concerned about America losing its soul," he said, bemoaning the country's opposition to illegal immigration. "I am worried that a backlash to newcomers could cause our country to lose its great capacity to assimilate newcomers."

America's soul has been gasping for survival for ages. This has nothing to do with Mr. Bush's "backlash" bogeyman -- which, frankly, sounds like another slap at Americans who want U.S. sovereignty upheld. Maybe Mr. Bush is just being emotional. But it's clear where his emotions lie, and it's not with conservatives. And I don't think they stop at the border, either.

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