Before the nation moves toward President Bush's "comprehensive" approach to immigration reform, it must remember 1986. As Mr. Bush advocates now, Congress then combined citizenship for illegal migrants with greater enforcement. For lack of political will, however, enforcement barely happened.
Will the nation again be promised a full solution to illegal immigration, only to end up with a halfway one - a reward of citizenship that attracts millions more illegals who will wait it out in the US until the next official leniency to grant a legal stay?
Does the executive branch - and will lawmakers - have the political spine to follow through on enforcement and resist the twin pressures of business addicted to cheap illegal labor and Latino-Americans whose vote is up for grabs?
These questions must be raised - not to dismiss America's immigrant identity, nor to suppress the human spirit that naturally seeks a better life. But rather, to show that the US has learned that it must secure its borders and enforce immigration rules at the workplace if it expects to progress as a nation based on law and equal opportunity.
In his Oval Office address Monday night, the president gave enforcement the marquee billing. He announced the dispatch of 6,000 National Guard troops to the southern border.
But the timing, politics, and temporary nature of this showy measure throw into question the depth of the White House's political will when it comes to enforcement.
How is it that Bush is only now addressing the nation during prime time and taking such a personnel-intensive step about a problem that's been building for so long? Law enforcement and social services are overrun in the border states. And across the country, governments have been grap-pling with illegal-immigrant problems such as chaotic day-labor sites, crowded housing, and low-skilled citizens having to compete with millions of illegals for jobs.
Politics, it seems, has a lot to do with the sudden conversion. Bush is at his lowest job approval rating. Polls show 60 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of immigration. He's in trouble with Republican voters and lawmakers, who seem more attuned to the problems of illegal immigration, and who need those voters come November.
In light of this, the National Guard deployment looks to be a Mary- Poppins strategy, something to make his guest-worker and citizenship ideas go down in the enforcement-minded House.
The National Guard is a first step on a long journey, and not a particularly convincing one. "None of us thinks the administration is really serious [about enforcement] because they haven't taken any serious efforts," says Republican Congressman Lamar Smith, of Texas.
Yes, the size of the border patrol has increased under Bush. But without workplace enforcement, a beefed-up border patrol is like a Hummer on empty. This administration's record on such enforcement is worse than even President Clinton's was.
The former Texas governor has always talked up his guest-worker idea. Now, he's suddenly emphasizing enforcement. Show-us-the-money skeptics can't be faulted for taking a lesson from history and wanting proof of enforcement up front.