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George Bush: Immigration Radical
by Gary Endelman


George Bush is an immigration radical, perhaps the most radical American president since the imposition of employer sanctions in November 1986. Not only is such radicalism at variance with his conservatism on virtually all other issues, but it is the key to his Hispanic outreach strategy for 2004. For the first time, critics of the immigration status quo have a friend in the White House and that is why a return of Section 245(i) is inevitable. It is but a small exaggeration to say that the fundamental character of US immigration policy for the remainder of the Bush years and beyond is now in play.

As Robert J. Samuelson reminded us in this past Friday's Washington Post, an obvious but overlooked truth is that "Prosperous societies are profoundly conservative. The conservatism is not partisan or ideological. It is personal and psychological, as in: Please don't disturb; let things stay as they are." The defenders of the employer sanctions regime want precisely that - not a solution to the perceived problem of illegal immigration but the maintenance of a system that offers the illusion of effective action. Just as social workers really do not want to eliminate poverty, since that would throw them out on the street with their clients, the INS enforcers need the undocumented to keep coming in order to justify their own institutional relevance. If employer sanctions really did what its proponents claim for it, then perhaps the whole I-9 maze could be sustained with a clear conscience. However, not only does employer sanctions fail to solve the problem but it actually makes things worse by distracting the American public from concentrating on what a real solution would actually look like and require from them and their government. The American economy could not function if employer sanctions worked. It does not and that is why we continue to tolerate a shadow economy where the undocumented do the hard, dirty and tough jobs that the rest of us want done. Eliminating this shadow economy would bring huge amounts of untapped tax revenue into the public coffers and fund many vital government programs that now are being cut.

In a post- September 11th world, it seems counterintuitive, even dangerously irresponsible, to proposed eliminating the one law that the American public thinks is protecting them and their nation against illegal immigration. Yet, now is precisely the time to act, to bring the undocumented out of the shadows of the underground economy into the bright sunshine of law and public scrutiny. It is not surprising that those who enforce employer sanctions are loath to give it up. More than the understandable urge for institutional self-preservation, those minding the national store have to believe in this moment of national danger that the continuation of the I-9 compliance system counts for something against the terrorist menace. Precisely because the sense of vulnerability is so pervasive throughout the body politic and in the corridors of power, the urge to prop up the status quo becomes well nigh irresistible. Robert Samuelson had it absolutely right when he explained the psychic origins of the conservative mindset. Speaking of the unavoidability of change, he writes: "But that day is not today. The instinct is to put off. Never mind that small changes and inconveniences now might avert large change and disruption later. The 'later' lies in the distant future. Not to worry. Delusion is mandatory, even respectable." In such a perilous moment, to let go of the I-9 security blanket and risk the nation's welfare on a new idea, namely the repeal of employer sanctions, requires a strength of will and faith in the future that is in distinctly short supply. Play it safe. Radicalism is the faith of the foolhardy in such a time. How oddly ironic then that George Bush sits in the White House!.

President Bush believes in a widespread amnesty for the undocumented and, even after September 11th, has continued to press for it in ongoing discussions with Mexican President Vicente Fox. The restoration of Section 245(i) is fundamentally incompatible with the concept of employer sanctions, a major reason why this outmoded and insular approach to job protection, whose time has come and gone, is on the way out. The President who is, if nothing else, a shrewd and insightful politician, knows that the growing Hispanic vote is the key to his re-election in 2004. Mindful that his candidate lost the 2000 popular vote by over 500,000 votes, political svengali Karl Rove has rightly identified Spanish-speaking Americans as the lever which George Bush could use to achieve an electoral stranglehold on key battleground states, such as Texas, Florida, California and New Jersey, the next time around.

The polling firm Bendixen and Associates recently conducted a fascinating poll on the "National Hispanic Electorate" for the New Democrat Network, a collection of centrist Democrats in the Clinton mold formed after the McGovern debacle of 1972 to reposition the party and regain national political competitiveness. Pollsters concluded that "President George W. Bush has succeeded in converting his personal popularity with Hispanics into substantial political support." Consider the following:

A: Hispanic Presidential Preference results saw George Bush go from 35% in November 2000 to 44% in May 2002 while Former Vice President Al Gore dropped from 62% to 46% over this same period;

B: The President enjoys a 76% favorable image rating among Hispanics, up from 38% in November 2000;

C: While Gore still leads in the presidential sweepstakes, both in the nation as a whole and in California, his lead over Bush has consistently narrowed. Gore has been losing support to Bush on a slow but steady basis.

D: 53% of Hispanics view President Bush as better than the Democrats in Congress when it comes to improving relations with Latin America;

E: While most Hispanics remain Democrats, Bush is widely more popular than his party on the core issue of immigration. When asked who was better on this issue, Hispanics gave Democrats a narrow edge over Bush ( 3%) but a huge advantage (31%) over the Republican Party as a whole.

The Poll cautions, however, that immigration may be "the Achilles heel of the White House's Hispanic political strategy." The reasons for such caution are not hard to find. 86% of Hispanics supported legalizing undocumented immigrants who worked and paid taxes while 84% agreed that "a lot more should be done to protect the rights of illegal immigrants in the U.S." Clearly, Hispanics identify with their ethnic and religious brethren who are attempting to circumvent US law in the search for a better life. In contrast to Attorney General Ashcroft and mainstream American public opinion, 57% of Hispanics do NOT believe that local police should ask people for proof of legal residence; interestingly, more recently naturalized Hispanic voters, those who obtained US citizenship since 1995, were more opposed to such police involvement with checking on the undocumented. 77% of such new Americans were afraid that allowing police to enforce immigration laws would make immigrants more afraid to ask for help when they need it.

Clearly, Hispanics like Bush but distrust Republicans and expect the President to deliver on promises to bring the undocumented out from the shadows into the mainstream of American life. If the President does come through, he will combine political self-interest with radical change that could transform the map of American electoral politics on the presidential level for years to come. One final point is worth considering: The Hispanic electorate is almost evenly split between voters that believe in opportunity and those that look to government social program for protection. If the President can persuade "government Hispanics" to become "opportunity Hispanics", there is a far greater chance that his personal popularity among Hispanics can be transferred to the GOP. As part of such a sales campaign, immigration can be a powerful tool. For this reason, let's offer the President some free advice: Take control of immigration away from the INS that distrusts the future, rejects the risk inherent in the concept of opportunity, and seeks to protect US workers by hiding behind Fortress America. Be a radical here as well. Give it to government planners in the Commerce Department who will use immigration to win markets and jobs for American employers and workers in the global economy. Let the INS keep the enforcement function and do what it likes to do and believes in; the rest goes to a government agency wiling to use immigration to grow the US economy.

The most conservative President in a generation whose political base is solidly on the right has found in the issue of immigration a radical formula for political power. If he has the will to use it and marries immigration to the larger theme of economic opportunity, he can run the table. I feel obliged to warn my fellow Democrats - watch out fellas, there is a shark in your pool, and he looks like he knows how to play this game.

About The Author

Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP America Inc. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP America Inc. in any way.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.

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