The battle over the borders

By Mark Follman

Published January 27, 2005 10:01PM (EST)

During the last couple of weeks the right flank of the Republican Party has been sounding a battle cry against President Bush over what appears to be his moderating stance on same-sex marriage, but the party's conservatives have other major domestic policy issues on their minds as well, including immigration reform, and Bush's proposed guest-worker initiative. Here, too, Bush has been put on notice by some denizens of the far right, who are calling for a more severe lockdown of U.S. borders -- especially the southern one -- in the name of the war against terrorism. That despite the fact that the U.S. relies on an army of cheap immigrant labor to help power our agricultural and service economies, that the nation's universities may be suffering a serious post-9/11 brain drain, and that Homeland Security's now more arduous system for asylum seekers may be lethal to political refugees (even if they are related to prominent American citizens).

As the L.A. Times reports today, a senior Republican lawmaker is pushing new legislation that could lead to a major fight against Bush on the issue.

"In a move that could put him at odds with President Bush, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee introduced legislation Wednesday that would effectively deny driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, tighten requirements for political asylum and complete the border fence between California and Mexico. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said the measures would help secure the nation from attacks like those carried out by Al Qaeda on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"With an estimated 8 million to 12 million immigrants living in the United States illegally, Republicans are split between those who believe that reform must include a plan to give many of them at least temporary -- and perhaps permanent -- legal status and those who oppose any legalization and advocate restricting legal immigration. Some Republicans have said that they did not speak out against the president's guest-worker program before the November elections out of loyalty to him; but they now feel free to oppose a program that their constituents view as amnesty for illegal immigrants."

Thanks to the two-term limit on the presidency, Bush himself no longer needs to court the nation's growing Hispanic vote, but clearly he recognizes the magnitude of the cheap-labor economy; he maintained his relatively moderate stance on immigration reform during Wednesday's White House press conference. "I want to remind people that family values do not stop at the Rio Grande River," he said. "People are coming to our country to do jobs that Americans won't do, to be able to feed their families. And I think there's a humane way to recognize that, at the same time protect our borders and at the same way (sic) to make sure that we don't disadvantage who have stood in line for years to become a legal citizen."

But in typical fashion, Bush also sounded like he wanted to have it both ways on the issue (and as long as immigrants don't take over the desirable jobs in America): "I'm against amnesty; I've made that very clear. On the other hand, I do want to recognize a system where a willing worker and a willing employer are able to come together in a way that enables people to find work without jeopardizing a job that an American would otherwise want to do."

Between national security -- Bush's political raison djtre -- and the huge cheap-labor economy, it'll be interesting to see where the president lands on this one. Or whether, with major political forces now mobilizing for the battles over Social Security and same-sex marriage, anything will happen at all.

"'We have to deal with the immigration issue,' Sensenbrenner said at a news conference Wednesday. When this would occur, however, 'is difficult for me to answer. If you look at what is on the plate of the Judiciary Committee, we are going to be plenty busy with other priorities, a lot of which are the priorities of the White House.'"

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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