Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Making sense of Bush's SOTU message: reading between the lines

Last night, faced with an increasing lack of support for his policies both here and abroad, President Bush once again retread familiar ground in an attempt to reach out to a new Democratic Congress and an electorate weary of war and inaction on domestic issues.

Unable to present any meaningful plan for a change, Bush resorted to much of the rhetoric we've been hearing for the last few years in regards to the major issues of the day. With the exception of a vague proposal to give tax credits for health insurance, the speech was generally boilerplate Bush….with some extra pleading to stay the course in Iraq thrown in for good measure.

As far as immigration reform is concerned, which was touted to be a cornerstone of the speech in the early reporting, he offered nothing new to the discussion … except perhaps for some carefully crafted back-peddling.

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At first glance he appears to have hit upon his usual themes when it comes to comprehensive reform: border security, guest workers, and a plan to legalize the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants currently living and working in the country. But when read between the lines, Bush may be starting to set the stage for a compromise that will allow him to get his coveted guest worker program while still allowing those who oppose comprehensive reform to get much of what they want.

"Extending hope and opportunity in our country requires an immigration system worthy of America -- with laws that are fair and borders that are secure. When laws and borders are routinely violated, this harms the interests of our country. To secure our border, we're doubling the size of the Border Patrol, and funding new infrastructure and technology.

Yet even with all these steps, we cannot fully secure the border unless we take pressure off the border -- and that requires a temporary worker program. We should establish a legal and orderly path for foreign workers to enter our country to work on a temporary basis. As a result, they won't have to try to sneak in, and that will leave Border Agents free to chase down drug smugglers and criminals and terrorists. We'll enforce our immigration laws at the work site and give employers the tools to verify the legal status of their workers, so there's no excuse left for violating the law.

We need to uphold the great tradition of the melting pot that welcomes and assimilates new arrivals. We need to resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country without animosity and without amnesty. Convictions run deep in this Capitol when it comes to immigration. Let us have a serious, civil, and conclusive debate, so that you can pass, and I can sign, comprehensive immigration reform into law."


Guest Workers

we cannot fully secure the border unless we take pressure off the border -- and that requires a temporary worker program

We've heard this many times before from Bush. He's been pushing for his guest worker plan since 2001.

Yet his assertion that the only way to "take pressure off the border" is through the funneling of immigrants through a temporary worker program is disingenuous at best, and at times borders on an outright falsehood.

There are numerous ways to control the flow of migrant laborers to alleviate the pressure on the border. The most obvious being to greatly increase the number of greencards issued to unskilled workers in any given year. At present, only 5000 are issued annually, obviously not nearly enough given the fact that over half a million unskilled workers enter the country illegally each year and find work. Simply adding the 200,000 workers who would receive H2c guest-worker visas under the Bush plan to the number of employment based greencards already issued each year would go a long way towards "taking pressure" off the border.

It would of course mean that these workers would have the option to stay in the country without fear that they could be returned to their countries of origin after three or six years, something business interests are not to keen on as it would eliminate the possibility for a rotating pool of new, cheap labor.

In reasserting his call for a temporary guest-worker program, the President is correct to insist that any such program must serve the U.S. economy as well as our law enforcement and national security objectives. He is also correct, and must insist, that any such program be truly temporary: Participation must be for a limited period of time; workers must return home after that period ends; and those that attempt to stay must be permanently ineligible for other visa programs, permanent residency, or citizenship.

The Heritage Foundation

Additionally, although ignored by those on both sides of the issue in Washington, the real key to "taking pressure off the border" is to reformulate our trade and foreign policies with sender nations to attempt eliminate the conditions that foster massive economic migration.

A trade policy that truly protected workers rights both here and abroad and worked to attain better economic and living conditions for the vast majority of citizens in sender nations who live in abject poverty would do more stem the flow of migrants than any guest worker program ever would. A foreign policy that didn't facilitate political corruption or perpetuate a system of rule by a small minority of the economically elite would also help to alleviate the conditions that produce massive migrations from sender nations. Our policies of "working with our neighbors" need to go beyond ensuring friendly governments to American business and geo-political interests. We need to work to make these nations become capable of truly caring for their own people.


We need to uphold the great tradition of the melting pot that welcomes and assimilates new arrivals

Here Bush has tied immigration reform to assimilation.

While the term "assimilation" is commonly used to mean the absorption of foreigners into the greater society, it has come to represent vastly different things to different people. For many on the right, it is tied to policies such as "English only" laws which attempt to limit the rights of those who are not fluent in the language and marginalize them both politically and economically.

For others, it is more about the belief that immigration is a threat to America's "Western European Culture". They see diversity and multiculturalism putting their American way of life in jeopardy and fear increased immigration will dilute, and ultimately supplant what they see as "American Society." Assimilation for them is not so much a goal to be accomplished, but rather a yardstick by which to measure each different groups "desirability" to be included in the national mosaic.

This move by Bush could be construed as an opening gesture to both groups.

Certainly, the conservative Heritage Foundation believes Bush has now elevated assimilation to the forefront of the debate:

As in the past, patriotic assimilation is the key to the long-term success of any immigration policy. New citizens must be committed to America's civic principles, appreciate American history and culture, and share America's common language—and we should encourage immigrants to become citizens. The President is correct to elevate this element and must insist on its inclusion in any reform package.


In the coming months it will be interesting to see just how much "assimilation" will be codified in any immigration reform legislation.


We need to resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country without animosity and without amnesty

The meaning of this statement leaves an awful lot of room for interpretation.

Obviously, the safest bet is that Bush is just playing the same game of semantics that everyone has since the Republican House decided that anything short of loading nearly 12 million people on buses and dropping them off at the Mexican border was "amnesty." With the word no longer tied to any linguist reality, it is left to the user to determine what "amnesty" actually means. He could have been referring to his support for earned legalization and a path to citizenship ...or maybe not.

One must always remain cognizant of the fact that the plight of the 11.5 million has never been a top priority for those in certain business-friendly corners of the Republican Party. Their chief concern has always been guest workers. The Kyl -Cornyn bill with it's "ya'all just go home and we'll let some of ya come back in" was example of this philosophy. The three-tiered status classifications of the Hagel-Martinez compromise was another. The bottom line for many reformers in the big-business camp is that as long as new guest workers can be assured of entering the country, what happens to the twelve million is not really that important. They are replaceable.

This leads to the key question left after Bush's speech. What exactly does " without animosity and without amnesty" mean? The Republicans in the room certainly didn't know what to make of the statement, first silent, then applauding, then silent again. Is Bush simply playing a game of semantics or is he willing to forgo a truly humane and comprehensive plan for in order to achieve a political victory that assures a guest worker program.?

After supporting the other principles laid out in the President's speech, his friends at the Heritage Foundation certainly hope so:

The President is right to propose that the status of illegal immigrants currently in the United States should be resolved "without animosity and without amnesty." But any measure that would allow millions of illegal immigrants who have broken U.S. immigration laws to remain in the United States is, by definition, an amnesty.

Amnesty is troubling not only because it undercuts the rule of law and is unfair to those immigrants who respect our laws, but also because it would undermine efforts to control the nation's borders, decrease the illegal population, and discourage the employment of undocumented workers. As such, amnesty violates core principles of immigration policy.

As with all things Bush, one never knows what he really means. Between catch phrases, and framing points that often mean the polar opposite of what they appear to be saying, it's often hard to tell, but we will need to watch him and his Republican supporters carefully. What deals and compromises they will be willing to make to get what they truly want is yet unknown, but the best interests of workers, both native-born and immigrant, has never been one of their top priorities. This must always be kept in mind.

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