No More Mañana

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

January 19, 2005

It was nice to hear Condoleezza Rice at her confirmation hearings Tuesday remind us that the president "has been concerned about and a proponent of immigration reform going back to the time that he was governor of Texas." But it would be even nicer to see him do something about it — now. Mañana won't do anymore when it comes to immigration reform; President Bush must move it to the front burner for his second term.

Bush continues to say the right things. Last week he told the Washington Times: "The system has broken down … and I think by legalizing work, we take a lot of pressure off our borders."

Trouble is, Bush has been saying this sort of thing for years, but he's done remarkably little about it. A year ago, in January, he raised the issue, as he did four years ago when he first took office. We don't question his sincerity, but every time the White House floats a vague proposal to fix the system, it seems to back off after the party's right wing throws a fit — though not before getting some credit from Latino groups.

Bush's proposal from last year remains vague, but the thrust of his ideas makes sense. He wants to legalize some of the estimated 8 million undocumented immigrants in the United States by granting them some type of temporary legal-worker status. The current situation is untenable; the nation cannot continue to tolerate this huge black market for labor. Immigrants are without labor rights or fair pay, and the market for legal labor is unfairly suppressed.

The immigrants should not be demonized. They were lured here by the knowledge that their work was needed in our society and that the United States doesn't really believe its own immigration laws. Bush is right to want to find a humane way to match willing workers with willing employers, as long as American workers honestly cannot or do not want to fill the jobs. Many industries in the U.S. — agriculture, hospitality, food processing, landscaping, construction, parts of healthcare and others — currently depend on foreign workers, often illegal.

A former border state governor, the president knows that the flow of labor across the border has nothing to do with terrorism, and he can appreciate that legally accommodating more immigration would free up law enforcement to focus on real threats.

Some members of Congress, like House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), seem to think that Al Qaeda would be the main beneficiary of immigration reform, which is preposterous. Immigration remains a charged subject on talk radio and elsewhere, one easily exploited by opportunists. For the White House, even tinkering with Social Security may seem like a safer political bet.

But Bush should not back off from this fight. For the first time in his presidency, he will have to take on social conservative activists within his party to advance his agenda. To prevail, he will have to work with business groups, enlightened Republicans like Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and, yes, even Democrats. Bill Clinton relied on some GOP support to push for free trade against opposition within his own party. Bush will have to build a similar coalition across party lines on immigration.