Let’s get a couple of things straight about the immigration speech President
George W. Bush unreeled Monday night from the Oval Office. His address had
nothing to do with actual border policy and everything to do with domestic
The real mission of the 6,000 National Guard troops he has called out is to
quell the rebellion on the president’s right flank, the flaring mutiny of
his own conservative base. Indeed, if the president were being honest, the
newly mobilized troops would be taken off the federal payroll and moved onto
the books of the 2006 national Republican campaign.
They certainly aren’t going to be stopping illegal immigration. Most of the
Guard will be unarmed. They will be barred from patrolling the border
itself, as well as from confronting, apprehending or even guarding the
undocumented. The troops will be given solely behind-the-scenes,
low-profile, mostly invisible tasks of pushing paper, driving vans, and
manning computers. Bush could have saved the taxpayers a load and sent a few
battalions of Boy Scouts to do this job.
I’ve spent oodles of hours and days on the border over the last five years,
including many contacts and visits with the Border Patrol. I’ve yet to bump
into a single one of the 350 National Guard already deployed on the border.
Of course, “sending troops to the border” sounds great—if you are among
those who actually believe there is a technological or military fix possible
for our busted-out immigration policy. That’s what Bush is hoping, at least.
That conservatives who are fed up with him, especially on what they see as
his failure to stop the human tide of poor people washing across the desert,
will be revitalized by the manufactured fantasy of armed, crew-cut,
uniformed young Americans standing shoulder-to-shoulder from Yuma to El
Chances are Bush’s border move will be no more successful than his
management of the war in Iraq or his response to Katrina. The
close-the-border faction of his own party is highly unlikely to accept
Monday night’s sop. They know, just like the governors of New Mexico and
California know, just as local law enforcement on the border knows, that
Bush’s gesture is but a photo-op political stunt. They want the border
closed, period. And their political representatives in the House – the
Sensenbrenners and the Tancredos—are showing no signs of softening their
resistance to both a guest worker plan as well as legalization path for the
illegals already here.
And even those who bought the get-tough portion of the president’s speech
also heard him endorse “comprehensive immigration reform” and a “temporary
worker program,” precisely the sort of measures scorned and denounced as an
“amnesty.” So much for placating the Right. Likewise, Bush’s dispatch of
troops—no matter how empty and symbolic—contains enough reality to rankle
the more liberal forces in the pro-immigration coalition.
In short, the president has now managed to alienate himself further from
his own base as well as from some of his more reluctant and expedient allies
on immigration. Heckuvajob, Dubya.
Bush’s plan may, however, provide some short-term benefit to some very
nervous and endangered Republicans House incumbents, offering them some
short-term political cover. But the longer-term risk seems enormous. A
growing number of Republican strategists know that the Latino vote will loom
ever more crucial in deciding which party will command governing majorities.
And they are worried that the long-term damage of the president pandering to
the anti-immigration forces could be devastating.
What a modern-age media spectacle was whipped up, by the way, over this
totally forgettable speech. CNN treated the speech with all the gravitas of
the launch of a manned mission to Mars, complete with a countdown clock and
rolling all-day coverage. With boundless shamelessness, the all-news network
ensconced the sputtering Lou Dobbs as one of its on-duty color commentators
for this artificially constructed event, something akin to having asked
George Wallace to objectively narrate the Great March on Washington. I don’t
fault Dobbs, a modern-day Ted Baxter who has found a lucrative niche as
CNN’s resident Minuteman. But, please, let us heap industrial amounts of
shame on the babbling Wolf Blitzer who, repeatedly, deferred to Dobbs as if
he were the font of all authority on this issue.
A phalanx of reporters will now head to the border, hoping to file feature
stories on the newly arrived Guard members. And one can expect that the
Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense will accommodate
the media spoon-feeding. The safe bet, though, is that this speech, in spite
of the momentary cable hype, will soon evaporate into the mists of memory.
The truth be told, the totality of Bush’s speech was rather reasonable.
Stripping away the political theatrics and the empty phrasing, and putting
aside the undue emphasis on deployment of the Guard, the president did
endorse the sort of bi-partisan reforms proposed by a coalition stretching
from John McCain and the Chamber of Commerce to Ted Kennedy and the Service
Employees International Union. And he called directly on both houses of
Congress to finally agree upon and pass a bill that reflects that consensus.
Problem is that Bush should have been speaking out forcefully in favor of
these moves ever since he raised comprehensive reform as a priority in his
2004 State of the Union speech. Unfortunately, he hid under his desk on this
issue for the last two years. Only after the right-wing of his base rebelled
and only after the pro-immigrant movement blossomed in the streets—that
is, only after the White House was completely overtaken by events—did the
And as usual, it was too little, too late.