Bush Argues His Case on Immigration Reform

President Bush gets so little credit for anything these days that, as one wag put it, if he walked on water, they’d say he can’t swim. So it’s easy to note that his Oval Office address to the nation on immigration reform fell flat with the GOP’s enforcement-only right wing and, therefore, presumably failed to rally the public or enlist the congressional majority needed to fix a broken system.

Not so fast. A careful reading of public reaction to Bush’s speech combined with the revival of a bipartisan, if still fragile, majority in the Senate for comprehensive reform sends rather more encouraging signals.

Maybe an immigration reform that is by turns tough, sensible and humane isn’t such an impossible dream, after all. And maybe, just maybe, the comprehensive immigration reform Bush proposed in his speech is about where most Americans are on this difficult issue.

Start with public opinion, commonly thought to be impossibly fractured on the complicated immigration issue. Turns out, it isn’t so fractured.

Most Americans want immigration laws enforced, starting with those at the U.S.-Mexico border and extending to employers prohibited from knowingly hiring immigrants who are here illegally. There is virtual consensus on the need for enforcement, which means getting serious about controlling the border and requiring forgery-proof identification that would confirm an immigrant’s legal status for employment.

But most Americans also recognize the growing U.S. economy’s need for migrant labor. Accordingly, they would support some form of guest-worker program. That’s the lawful alternative to employment-driven illegal immigration.

Most Americans oppose granting amnesty to immigrants who broke the law to get here, or stay here. But most Americans also favor creating an earned, and lengthy, path to citizenship for deserving immigrants; defined as those who have been here for many years, have established families, stable jobs and ties to their communities and who are willing and able to meet exacting qualifications.

Putting even these deserving immigrants, whose contributions are undeniably a net gain for America, at the back of the citizenship line behind all previous applicants means a protracted wait of at least 11 years. Adding the requirements that they pay a fine for violating U.S. immigration law, pay all back taxes, learn English and demonstrate basic knowledge of American law and government guarantees that this process is not “amnesty.”

These are Bush’s positions, too, as reflected in his speech Monday night. Did he persuade?

A prearranged CNN poll conducted immediately after the speech among those who watched it (admittedly many more Republicans than Democrats) found that 79 percent had a positive reaction. Bush’s favorable rating on the immigration issue among these respondents went from 42 percent before the speech to 67 percent after it. The president’s decision to send National Guard troops to the border temporarily to back-stop the expanding Border Patrol won support from 75 percent of those surveyed in the CNN poll.

Granted, other polls showed a decidedly mixed response. Zogby’s overnight polling, for example, showed a split decision — 47 percent positive, 47 percent “disappointed.” But even the Zogby poll’s results showed that 70 percent of Republicans generally liked the speech and approved Bush’s proposals. That suggests the GOP’s enforcement-only zealots in the House of Representatives have less support in their own party, and in the country, than they imagine.

Moreover, a breakdown of the CNN poll’s admittedly skewed demographics contains more good news for Bush. CNN’s polling slice included 41 percent Republicans, 23 percent Democrats and 36 percent independents. For Bush’s speech to draw 79 percent approval among these respondents, 59 percent of whom were Democrats and independents, is both impressive and significant.
What it clearly suggests is that Bush’s measured, middle-ground approach to a comprehensive immigration reform is, in fact, close to what may be an emerging public consensus.

A single poll doesn’t prove that, of course. But multiple national polls on the immigration issue over many months show emerging majority support for the policies Bush is proposing. Congress reads the polls, too, which is why there is yet hope for resolving the differences between the Senate’s comprehensive bill and the House’s enforcement-only version.

Beyond doing what is right and workable for the country, Bush and congressional Republicans have one more reason to press hard for a balanced, fair and comprehensive immigration reform. It’s called the Hispanic vote. It’s key to the GOP’s prospects for holding on to its congressional majorities this year and the White House in 2008.
Bush sees immigration reform as a way to prove that “America can be a lawful society, and a welcoming society, and we don’t have to choose between the two.” Republicans in Congress, take note.