PREOCCUPIED with scandal at home and war overseas, the Bush administration is resting its hopes of making a dent in the nation's domestic agenda largely on its stated goal of overhauling immigration policy. Yet the White House is doing too little to craft a plan that can attract bipartisan support and effectively reshape the nation's unrealistic rules on immigration. Rather than nudge its Republican allies toward such a strategy, the administration seems more intent on placating party hard-liners.
A week after sensible, bipartisan legislation to reform immigration policy was introduced in the House, the administration circulated a collection of talking points last week. The document, the product of meetings between senior administration officials and Republican senators, is a step backward -- not only from legislation passed by the Senate last year but also from the general proposition that any genuine reform must be workable. In particular, the document offers up a template for punishing immigrants with repeated and possibly indefinite fines even after they emerged from the shadows to secure legal status.
In addition to toughening enforcement and beefing up the border, President Bush has spoken reasonably of providing an eventual path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. But the discussion document released by the White House, while declaring breezily that most illegal aliens "will eventually all be processed through the system," provides no real avenue for that to happen. Rather, the administration would require that an undocumented immigrant pay $3,500 in fines and fees every three years to remain here, plus an $8,000 fine if and when his or her application for legal permanent residence was accepted -- which might be never. In the meantime, immigrants who had legalized their status in the United States would not have the right to sponsor their relatives to join them. That would diminish the chances that immigrants already here could assimilate, establish communities and unify their families. It is a blueprint for social problems.
Nor would future immigrants, on whose labor the nation's economy similarly depends, be treated realistically. Although it is estimated that some 400,000 immigrant workers will be needed annually to satisfy demand in the labor market, the White House plan would insist that these "temporary workers" leave every two years and remain out of the country for six months, for a maximum of six years' work here. That stricture invites rule-breaking, both by workers and by employers, who need a reliable and experienced workforce. The administration concedes that "model" employees should be eligible to apply to stay in the country permanently, but it provides no additional visas that would help make that possible. Temporary workers would also be barred from bringing wives and children with them, ensuring the growth of a sizable class of single, rootless men and their attendant social problems.
At its heart, the White House plan is a political document, not a workable program destined for success in the real world. It seems more intent on punishing illegal immigrants than in forging a framework to deal with them forthrightly. It may appease some immigration hawks, but it will not address a problem that Americans overwhelmingly say they want fixed.