THERE ARE, NO DOUBT, elements of politics and showmanship in the recent moves by the governors of New Mexico and Arizona to declare states of emergency along their borders with Mexico. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano are both Democrats up for reelection next year -- Mr. Richardson harbors presidential ambitions as well -- and illegal immigration is a front-burner issue in both states. The declarations free up state funds to be spent on extra patrols, equipment and other needs. But the acts are even more important as a cage-rattling device -- an "act of desperation," as Mr. Richardson called it, to prod Congress and the Bush administration to pay attention to the growing problem.
To the extent that these declarations are a publicity stunt to get Washington moving, we hope they work. Scores of illegal immigrants are dying in the hot desert. Drug smuggling, human trafficking and associated crimes are on the rise. The system is overwhelmed: Even if there were enough border patrol agents to apprehend all the undocumented workers, which there aren't, there wouldn't be enough other staff to process them or, especially in the case of those from countries other than Mexico, enough beds to hold them until they can be sent home. Meanwhile, as the recent controversy over day laborers in Herndon illustrates, the impact of illegal immigration reaches well beyond border states. As Ms. Napolitano predicted at a luncheon with Washington Post reporters and editors this week, "It's a border state issue now, but it's going to be a national issue."
And it's one that can't be solved through stepped-up enforcement alone: There is too much supply on the part of those who want to enter the United States, legally or illegally, and too much demand on the part of employers to fill jobs that would go begging without foreign workers. This is a point on which the Bush administration and the Democratic governors agree, at least in theory. President Bush has proposed -- though he's failed to push -- a plan for temporary worker visas that could reduce the incentive to enter the country illegally. "A strategy that simply hires a lot of border patrol agents and puts them on the line is not an effective strategy," Michael Chertoff, Department of Homeland Security secretary, told reporters this week.
There are some reasons to hope this fall could be the time for a more sensible, comprehensive approach. A proposal by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) includes a temporary guest worker program similar to the one the president outlined. Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) have put forward a more restrictive measure. "Immigration reform is going to be an interesting subject when we get back to Washington, D.C.," Mr. Bush said earlier this month. "I'm looking forward to the topic."
What's needed from Mr. Bush, though, is a commitment not simply to observe the debate over immigration reform but to join, if not lead, it. The episode just before the congressional recess, in which the administration abruptly withdrew its two witnesses from a Senate hearing on immigration reform, was not a good omen. But perhaps five weeks in a border state will buttress Mr. Bush's commitment to fix the problem of illegal immigration, not to simply talk about it.