Those who complain that no great issues ignite the passions of Americans the way ideology did during the Cold War struggle between East and West, need not fear that we are running out of things to fight about. The difference is that today’s heated debates tend to focus on problems closer to home, more likely to have a direct impact on personal lives than a higher theoretical or philosophical dimension. Consider the issue of abortion, literally a life and death question, which echoes with religious undertones. Or free trade, which splits both Republicans and Democrats right down the middle and arouses the fierce antagonisms of the ludite anti-WTO crowd.
Or consider the issue of immigration. Now, there’s a topic to start the fur flying in all directions. It all depends on whether you believe we about to become an “alien nation” as Peter Brimmelow put it starkly or whether you believe this country’s destiny and path to greatness lies in keeping the door open to the world’s “poor and huddled masses.”
President George W. Bush in his first official foreign trip, paying a neighborly visit to Mexican President Vicente Fox, waded briskly into this thorny thicket. Under discussion were proposals to expand the visa program for temporary workers, the “H” visa category which currently is geared towards highly skilled labor, to include unskilled temporary workers in the agricultural sector as well. For his part, Mr. Fox is pressing the United States to agree to another sweeping amnesty of Mexicans living illegally in this country, and has said that immigration is his Number One priority.
As governor of Texas, Mr. Bush acquired a better understanding of the human and economic costs associated with illegal immigration than most American would have. Texas has 27 border points with Mexico, more than California, Arizona and New Mexico put together and obviously more opportunities for illegal crossings. These are the front line states in the losing battle against illegal immigration. Making Latin America a foreign policy priority makes a great deal of sense, as Mr. Bush said as early as last August in a foreign policy address. “Weak neighbors export problems. Environmental problems, illegal immigration, even crime, drugs and violence. Strong neighbors export their goods, and buy ours creating jobs and good will.” And he added significantly, “This can be the century of the Americas.”
Additionally, Mr. Bush has good domestic political reasons for grappling with immigration. In the last presidential election, the Republican Party worked hard to change its image with minority voters, with only limited success. The Republican Convention showcased minorities of all kinds, but Hispanics particularly could be pleased. One of the stars of the convention was George P. Bush, nephew of the president and son of the Florida governor, who addressed the audience in fluent Spanish. Hispanics will soon overtake blacks as the largest ethnic minority group. Strongly influenced by Catholic values and strong families, Hispanics are a natural Republican constinuency. In the November election, however, the fact that the Republican Congress the month before declined to grant the amnesty for several Latin American immigrant groups sought by the Clinton White House undercut expectations of large Republican gains. Mr. Bush is now trying to reach these voters again. All of which makes good demographic political tactics.
Unfortunately, it is almost impossible for Republicans to do so, without alienating another constintuency, a more traditionaly one, the social and Christian conservatives who tend to take a dim view of the inevitable cultural changes large scale immigration entails. While the GOP hungered for the White House, they remained quiet, but their attendance at the polls was significantly down. As may be gathered, both these constituencies hold a passionate view of the issue of immigration.
It is clear, however, that with some 8.5 million Mexican immigrants living in this country, and about 3 million of them illegally, an orderly and legal process is preferable to one that is neither process nor legal. In this, Mr. Bush is absolutely right. However, if resurrecting a temporary vise program is the answer, and it may be, it ought to be combined with internal enforcement efforts by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, something that has been all but abandonned by now. Once people have crossed the border regions, they vanish into the general population without a trace. Many probably hope for an amnesty eventually, like the amnesty of 1986 the third only in the entire history of the United States. In that amnesty 2.7 million illegal Mexicans, the largest group to benefit, received legal residence status, only to be replaced by millions of other illegals a decade later. The idea of amnesty becomes an attraction in and of itself.
Mr. Bush may have to square the circle to solve this one. It is to his credit however that he dares take on the problem at such an early stage of his presidency. One thing is certain, cooperation with Mexico is a key to any solution, and by his neighborliness with Mr. Fox, Mr. Bush seems to have made a good start.