These days, even when George W. Bush is right, he’s wrong.

Six years of deceitful defenses of disastrous policy decisions will have that effect on a president’s credibility. It is good news that the public is finally hip to his con, yet it is worrisome when surprisingly sensible proposals by the president on immigration are automatically rejected because of the source.

What is different about Bush’s stance on immigration is that the president is, at long last, dealing with a subject he actually knows something about — as opposed to his failed war of words against terrorism, Iraq, nuclear weapons proliferation and even Social Security. On this subject, the former governor of a state with a 1,200-mile border with Mexico grasps that the problem is complex and the solution elusive and that fact and logic do matter.

Unfortunately, complexity doesn’t sell. Not to the media, at least, which have largely lost the ability to parse serious issues. Nor are Bush’s rabid Republican cohorts in the House and even some shameless Democrats willing to let common sense interfere with their exploitation of this emotional, explosive issue, which gets hyped up to crisis level every decade or so. It is to Bush’s credit that he refused to join the stampede of the immigration hysterics and dared to suggest a reasonable compromise.

What Bush got right about serious immigration reform is the need to join two apparently irreconcilable but inevitably co-dependent goals: control of the border and amnesty for most of those already here illegally. While shunning the explosive A-word, he does propose legalizing the status of millions of illegal immigrants if they pay back taxes and fines.

“What I’ve just described is not amnesty, it is a way for those who have broken the law to pay their debt to society, and demonstrate the character that makes a good citizen,” Bush said, in what is certainly one of his milder stretches of the truth.

This de facto amnesty would allow those already here without papers to go about their work and lives without fear of deportation. This is crucial, because the alternative is social chaos of a dimension not experienced in this country since the Civil War and Reconstruction. As Bush put it with uncharacteristic clarity: “It is neither wise nor realistic to round up millions of people, many with deep roots in the United States, and send them across the border.”

Bush also knows from his days as Texas governor that simply sealing the border through military means would be neither wise nor realistic. Ever since it was — let’s be honest — stolen from Mexico, Texas, like California, has prospered from a fluid border that serves as an economic safety valve.

This is most glaringly obvious in the agricultural sector, where the current shortage of workers to perform the delicate work of picking and close-in hoeing is alarming the lords of agribusiness. The situation in manufacturing, construction, food processing, the service sector and the garment industry is similar.

The jobs that draw the immigrants will continue to exist, and it is in his failure to deal forthrightly with that magnet that Bush’s immigration proposal dramatically fails. In fact, the best way to stem the flow of cheap immigrant labor is to substantially increase the minimum wage requirement to a living wage, and to deploy sufficient U.S. Labor Department inspectors to enforce it. At the very least, existing laws protecting workers must not continue to be ignored — but Bush’s speech contained no reference to enforcing the wage, working conditions and occupational safety laws on the books that might make those jobs more attractive to workers here legally.

Bush’s two specific proposals in this regard, a guest-worker program and tamper-proof identity card for those workers, represent Band-Aids rather than the harsh medicine that exploitive employers should be compelled to swallow.

Guest workers are by definition indentured servants, prevented by law from using the power of free labor, including the power to strike for higher wages. And ID cards, if not universal to employees in the United States, will become a discrimination nightmare.

What is needed is a free market for labor in which workers with clearly defined and protected rights bargain for full payment for their worth. If the working conditions and pay rise to the level that they become attractive to workers here legally, then the market for undocumented workers will dry up and border controls can function relatively efficiently. If not, the border will simply remain porous, and employers like Wal-Mart will continue to exploit cheap labor, as is their custom.

Robert Scheer is the editor of and author of “Playing President.” You can e-mail him at [email protected].

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