WASHINGTON — Last week, President Bush stepped forward and announced "We should have immigration laws that work and make us proud." He proposed a new program and struck a mighty blow - for his own reelection chances.
The president outlined a plan that would offer illegal immigrants the opportunity to obtain legal status as temporary workers in jobs that "American citizens are not filling." The three-year worker visas they received would not grant them amnesty, he said, but would ensure for them wage and worker protections, and at least it would give them a shot at, though no promise of, attaining real residency that would allow them to stay here permanently.
What this proposal means in terms of national policy is not yet completely clear. There are a lot of details to be worked out and plenty of opponents of it on both sides of the aisle.
What it means politically is a bit more obvious. First, when the plan is named, it will probably contain at least one of the words: "compassion" or "freedom" or "hope" - and maybe all three. And second, we can be sure that the president will take to the campaign trail trumpeting the new "Compassionate Initiative for Hope and Freedom," particularly in states with a lot of Latino voters.
The hope will be to peel away 4 or 5 percent of the Hispanic vote from the Democrats, and if it works, Mr. Bush may be preparing for his second inauguration next November.
In 2000, the president captured 35 percent of the Hispanic vote, impressive for a Republican. But by some estimates, he needs 40 percent this time. If he can put the Hispanic vote in play, he may help tip Florida into his column and force the Democrats to spend resources to defend states they should feel comfortable about, such as New York, Illinois, and California.
As politics, it's hard to argue with the plan. It's simple, direct, and is couched in the kind of feel-good rhetoric Americans generally love. "America is a stronger and better nation because of the hard work and the faith and entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants," he said at the rollout last week. Cue "America the Beautiful."
As a policy, however, the initiative is a muddled mess. Trying to walk a tightrope between Republicans who rail against illegal immigration and Democrats who would like to see some sort of amnesty, it ends up doing at best nothing and at worst real damage.
Given serious thought, the claims the president makes about the plan simply don't hold up.
First, it is yet to be seen how many immigrants will sign up for the plan or what exactly they'll get out of it. It promises a three-year worker visa, but the visa can be taken away if a worker loses his job. Unless one is making a ridiculously low wage, why bother telling the government? And anyone making a ridiculously low wage probably won't be able to keep the job under the plan. The reason the job paid so little in the first place is the employer didn't want to pay more. If the employer has to pay more, the job may disappear.
Second, the whistle-blower aspects of the plan don't make much more sense for illegals, either. The idea is the workers could now inform the government if they are being mistreated or underpaid, but could they? Since they need to work or go home, how likely would they be to turn in their employer?
But this just shows that the proposal is unhelpful. The real damage could come down the road if the proposal turns out to be "successful."
The president emphasized in his speech that illegals could take only jobs that US citizens don't want. Of course, the reason they don't want the jobs is obvious - the answer is pay.
In the past, employers who cared about the law wouldn't hire illegal immigrants because they were, well, illegal. If, in some areas, there is a large legal employee pool that the government has essentially designed to work for the lowest possible wage, employers will hire them. Republicans' belief in the power of markets to lower prices is warranted. In a world where there's a huge supply of low-wage labor available, prices for laborers will drop - particularly in one area where the economy has been adding jobs, the service sector.
Of course, considering the opposition that the plan will face from both Democrats and Republicans, none of this may matter too much, but that doesn't mean it is inconsequential. It's a look into the mind of this White House, the latest in a line of policies covering everything from the economy to education - a poorly planned approach with hugely problematic implications for the future.
But, hey, just think of the votes.