First things first on the border

Republicans in Congress who are up for reelection in 2006 are feeling the heat from their GOP base to crack down on illegal migration. Many of them want President Bush to assist them by beefing up border security. Try as he might, that's not his first choice.

Up to now, border security has been a lesser immigration priority for a president who once said that those who enter the US illegally are simply trying to "provide for their families" and "put food on the table" - as if opening the border to any job seeker were merely a humanitarian matter. In these days of Al Qaeda-style terrorism, the humane act would be to have well-regulated borders and better law enforcement against the thousands of employers who hire undocumented workers.

Without first showing the border can be secured enough to drastically reduce illegal migration, the president's other priorities such as a "guest worker" program should not be implemented.

Yes, Mr. Bush did recently sign a bill into law that improves border protection by such steps as adding 1,000 Border Patrol agents. And this week, the president is giving speeches in Texas and Arizona that will appear to show he's now serious about stemming the increasing flow of unlawful migration into the US. But this belated support was probably done under political duress to keep the GOP majority in Congress.

Indeed, Bush does show a new enthusiasm for several practical measures, such as returning illegal migrants captured along the Mexican border back to the interior of Mexico rather than releasing them simply on the other side. (Such a step would reduce the incentive for those who keep trying to find one of many holes in the US security system.)

The president's political nod toward better security might help GOP candidates who need to show that their party is making some moves toward reducing the massive lawlessness of border crossings and trying to nab infiltrating terrorists. But Americans are in a show-me mood when it comes to immigration, and are oh-so aware that past border toughening and the 1986 amnesty for illegals did little to stem the flow.

They're also wise to the false notion that a guest-worker program will somehow greatly soak up the demand among those who want to enter the US and thus reduce illegal crossings.

A GOP plan to pass a "comprehensive" immigration bill early next year should aim to secure the borders first before dealing with an increase in legal entries or providing any sort of back-door amnesty to the more than 10 million illegal immigrants in the US. Those businesses which now hire illegal workers and contribute heavily to the GOP should not be the GOP's priority when it comes to security issues such as border controls. If employers need more American workers, all they need to do is raise wages and offer benefits. They might also rest easier by obeying hiring laws.

A nation that long tolerates such open lawlessness in both illegal entries and hiring can't claim to be a beacon of virtue to the world. Nor is it safe against terrorism.

Like New Orleans' broken levees, the US needs to shore up its border protection first. Then it can be more generous in taking in the world's huddled masses.

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