IT WAS CERTAINLY comprehensive, touching on a wide range of policies. It was rightly made in Arizona, where the issues at stake are the most controversial. Nevertheless, it's impossible not to feel jaded about President Bush's speech Monday on immigration reform. The president has, after all, proposed immigration reforms before, most notably the creation of a new temporary visa system for foreign workers. When he did so in January 2004, we welcomed his remarks, vague though they were, on the grounds that they might start a great national debate. That never happened: The president, then running for reelection, encountered outrage from immigration opponents in his own party and abandoned the issue. We're glad he's now brought it up again, but will a president with so much less political capital spend it on an issue this difficult?
Still, if Mr. Bush is in a weaker position than he was the last time around, other factors offer more grounds for optimism. For one thing, there are several serious immigration reform proposals in Congress, including a bill authored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), another by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), and several by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), has pledged to increase border security. There are matching proposals and a similar level of interest in the House. The issue has also changed from one that politicians preferred to avoid to one that they have no choice but to face. Arguments about border control now take place in Fairfax and Montgomery counties as well as in Tucson, El Paso and pretty much everywhere else.
It is also beginning to seem possible, as Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute puts it, to "thread the needle," to satisfy at least some of the president's restrictionist opponents with tougher border controls while at the same time dealing realistically with the fact that the American economy depends on immigrant labor. The president's speech pointed in that direction. He advocated the expedited deportation of captured illegal immigrants, more Border Patrol agents, and equipment and efforts to combat document fraud. He also put his proposal for temporary visas firmly in that security context: "By creating a legal channel for those who enter America to do an honest day's labor, we would reduce the number of workers trying to sneak across the border."
The president avoided the toughest issue: what to do with the 11 million illegal immigrants who live and work here already and who won't apply for legal status unless they believe they will get it. He said he opposed creating an "automatic path to citizenship" for them -- and then punted the issue to Congress. The hope now must be in common sense: Recent political campaigns in Arizona have shown that voters made aware of the economic and political consequences of different immigration reforms are less likely to advocate mass deportations or the construction of a new Berlin Wall on the Rio Grande, and are more likely to support practical solutions. If nothing else, we'll therefore repeat, more cautiously, what we wrote almost two years ago: We hope a consequential debate on immigration has finally begun.