By Marc Cooper
Editor’s note: One of the nation’s leading experts on immigration policy writes that Bush’s May 15 speech “had nothing to do with actual border policy and everything to do with domestic electoral politics.”
Let?s get a couple of things straight about the immigration speech President George W. Bush unreeled Monday night from the Oval Office.
His address had nothing to do with actual border policy and everything to do with domestic electoral politics.
The real mission of the 6,000 National Guard troops he has called out is to quell the rebellion on the president?s right flank, the flaring mutiny of his own conservative base. Indeed, if the president were being honest, the mobilized troops would be taken off the federal payroll and moved onto the books of the 2006 national Republican campaign.
They certainly aren?t going to be stopping illegal immigration. Most of the Guard will be unarmed. They will be barred from patrolling the border itself, as well as from confronting, apprehending or even guarding the undocumented. The troops will be given solely behind-the-scenes, low-profile, mostly invisible tasks of pushing paper, driving vans and manning computers. Bush could have saved the taxpayers a load and sent a few battalions of Boy Scouts to do this job.
I?ve spent oodles of hours and days on the border over the last five years, having multiple contacts and visits with the Border Patrol, and I?ve yet to bump into a single one of the 350 National Guard members already deployed on the border.
Of course, ?sending troops to the border? sounds great—if you are among those who actually believe there is a technological or military fix possible for our busted-out immigration policy. That?s what Bush is hoping, at least: that conservatives who are fed up with him, especially on what they see as his failure to stop the human tide of poor people washing across the desert, will be revitalized by the manufactured fantasy of crew-cut, uniformed young Americans standing shoulder-to-shoulder from Yuma to El Paso.
Chances are Bush?s border move will be no more successful than his management of the war in Iraq or his response to Katrina. The close-the-border faction of his own party is highly unlikely to accept Monday night?s sop. They know, just as the governors of New Mexico and California know, just as local law enforcement on the border knows, that Bush?s gesture is but a photo-op political stunt. They want the border closed, period. And their political representatives in the House—the Sensenbrenners and the Tancredos—are showing no signs of softening their resistance to both a guest worker plan and a legalization path for the illegals already here.
And even those who bought the get-tough portion of the president?s speech also heard him endorse ?comprehensive immigration reform? and a ?temporary worker program,? i.e. precisely the sort of measures scorned and denounced as an ?amnesty.? So much for placating the right. Likewise, as I wrote before the speech (“Bush Bull: Troops on the Border”), Bush?s dispatch of troops—no matter how empty and symbolic—contains enough reality to rankle the more liberal forces in the pro-immigration coalition.
In short, the president has now managed to alienate himself further from his own base as well as from some of his more reluctant and expedient allies on immigration. Heckuvajob, Dubya.
Bush?s plan may, however, provide short-term benefit to some very nervous and endangered Republican House incumbents, offering them short-term political cover. But the longer-term risk seems enormous. A growing number of Republican strategists know that the Latino vote will loom ever more crucial in deciding which party will command governing majorities. And they are worried that the long-term damage of the president pandering to the anti-immigration forces could be devastating.
What a media spectacle was whipped up, by the way, over this totally forgettable speech. CNN treated the speech with all the gravitas of the launching of a manned mission to Mars, complete with a countdown clock and rolling all-day coverage. With boundless shamelessness, the all-news network ensconced the sputtering Lou Dobbs as one of its color commentators for this artificially constructed event, something akin to having asked George Wallace to objectively narrate the Great March on Washington. I don?t fault Dobbs, a modern-day Ted Baxter who has found a lucrative niche as CNN?s resident Minuteman. But, please, let us heap industrial amounts of shame on the babbling Wolf Blitzer, who repeatedly deferred to Dobbs as if the latter was the font of all authority on this issue.
A phalanx of reporters will now head to the border, seeking to file feature stories on newly arrived Guard members. And one can expect the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense to accommodate the media spoon-feeding. The safe bet, though, is that this speech, in spite of the cable hype, will soon evaporate into the mists of memory.
The truth be told, the totality of Bush?s speech was rather reasonable. Stripping away the political theatrics and the empty phrasing, and putting aside the undue emphasis on deployment of the Guard, the president did endorse the sort of bipartisan reforms proposed by a coalition stretching from John McCain and the Chamber of Commerce to Ted Kennedy and the Service Employees International Union. And he called directly on both houses of Congress to finally agree upon and pass a bill that reflects that consensus. Problem is that Bush should have been speaking out forcefully in favor of these moves ever since he raised comprehensive reform as a priority in his 2004 State of the Union speech. Unfortunately, he hid under his desk on this issue for the last two years. Only after the right wing of his base rebelled and only after the pro-immigrant movement blossomed in the streets—that is, only after the White House was completely overtaken by events—did the president act. And as usual, it was too little, too late.
Marc Cooper has reported on international and domestic American politics for dozens of publications, and is Senior Fellow for Border Justice at USC Annenberg’s Institute for Justice and Journalism. He is the author of several books, including a memoir about his time as translator for Chile’s President Salvador Allende and surviving the 1973 military coup.