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Bordering on progress

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Six years of the Bush administration's immigration policy came crashing down with Congress' failure to pass "comprehensive" immigration reform. Now, President Bush has shifted to something approaching a modest border-tightening, or so it seems. In reality, the president has come forward with a few truly useful measures and then exaggerated the importance of some others for political effect. While this is better than nothing, what's truly interesting is the politics. Mr. Bush seems to want to give Republicans what they've asked for, as though they're about to get a dose of bitter medicine. He has another thing coming. The American public actually wants these steps.

Here are the actual reforms, followed by the exaggerations. The most important are the changes to Social Security "no match" letters, which could prompt at least some employers to avoid hiring illegals. Currently, the Social Security Administration sends "no match" letters to employers who submit employee W-2s which do not correspond to the records. Most "no matches" belong to illegal aliens. In practice, this system has been a failure. These letters currently go only to employers with very large numbers of unmatched W-2s, and even these could for the most part be safely ignored. Under a new rule, the Social Security Administration will need to send letters to any employer with more than one-half of one percent of its workforce as "no match" employees. This is a potentially huge pool of companies. It is doubtful that a large number of letters will be significantly better than a small number if the old approach was simply ignored. But we would expect at least some modest deterrent effect.

The rest of the changes are for the most part routine — or they should be in a normally functioning system. Mr. Bush has authorized a modest extension of a border fence and made additions to the list of foreign criminal gangs whose thugs cannot receive U.S. visas. He has added some Border Patrol agents. The administration has also made a series of pledges, including a revamping of background checks, the placement of new equipment at the border and putting in new detention beds for apprehended illegals.

Finally, there are the political theatrics. For one, Mr. Bush seems to think these moves will teach Republicans a lesson in the inherent superiority of his approach. He will be surprised. The great majority of Americans are shocked when they learn how porous the border is. They also understand what it means to earn citizenship, and how insulting Mr. Bush's previous open-borders policies were to immigrants who follow the rules. The president apparently thinks that Americans will recoil from get-tougher approaches toward border enforcement once they see how they actually operate. We suspect he's in for a rude awakening.

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