With his poll numbers already driven down by high gas prices and a perception of stagnancy in Iraq, the immigration issue has split President Bush from his conservative base and pushed his ratings into the cellar. But in last night's low-key prime-time Oval Office speech on immigration, reconciliation with the right was a relatively small part of his agenda. Rather than simply rally his base back to his defense, Bush sought to pose as the voice of reason in a debate marked by a high heat-to-light ratio.
Take his proposal to improve border security. Bush called for up to 6,000 National Guard members to be deployed to assist the Border Patrol for one year, after which the Guard's presence will be drawn down while the number of Border Patrol agents is increased by 6,000 by the end of 2008. Substantively, it's both too much and too little. Too much because as a Minuteman Project experiment in Arizona last year showed, all that is needed to seal the border is auxiliary personnel with as little as three days training providing aid to Border Patrol agents; the full two years of training that Border Patrol agents receive is not required for everyone working security at the border. Too little because sealing the border requires 36,000 such auxiliary personnel. The Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, led by Tom Tancredo, favors a National Guard presence of that strength on the border, and conservatives already dissatisfied with Bush over immigration will not be placated by what many will see as almost a token effort. On the other hand, any deployment of the National Guard to the border automatically sets off alarm bells among Democratic leaders who are offended by any whiff of militarization at the border.
That dynamic places the President in the center of the debate. Indeed, the whole five-part structure of the speech was designed toward striking that balance. Every nod toward restriction was complemented by a nod toward liberalization.
His first point was all about enforcement at the border -- the Guard proposal, funding to law enforcement in border towns, building more detention centers to end "catch-and-release." This came with a caveat that this wouldn't amount to border militarization, that "Mexico is our neighbor, and our friend." His second point was about a temporary worker program, selling it as a replacement for illegal immigration that "would add to our security by making certain we know who is in our country and why they are here." His third point was about interior enforcement, "hold[ing] employers to account for the workers they hire" with a tamper-proof ID "for every legal foreign worker." His fourth point drew a distinction "between an illegal immigrant who crossed the border recently -- and someone who has worked here for many years, and has a home, a family, and an otherwise clean record," and argued that a path to citizenship for the latter group doesn't amount to amnesty. His fifth point put the emphasis on assimilation and learning English. The rhythm was almost metronomic.
How well will this strategy serve the President? At the very least, he is unlikely to push his poll numbers down any more; there was too little here that was new to move people who are already deeply invested in the immigration debate. It may modestly help him among independents turned off by the tenor of the debate; his call for a civil debate was shrewd. But the main effect of the speech is to kick the immigration debate back over to Capitol Hill. Bush took the opportunity "to speak directly to Members of the House and the Senate," calling for a quick passage of some sort of compromise legislation. It is now up to Congress to decide whether they'd rather face voters in November with an immigration law passed -- or without one.
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