An attempt to get back in good graces?

SAN DIEGO -- In politics, there are two ways to get in someone's good graces: You can do something for them, or you can avoid doing something to them.

SAN DIEGO -- In politics, there are two ways to get in someone's good graces: You can do something for them, or you can avoid doing something to them.

It's a given that President Bush needs to get back in the good graces of conservatives in his own party. Thanks to the Harriet Miers debacle, and the fact that Republicans are finally getting a good look at the "compassionate conservative" they supported in two elections, Bush's support from the hard right is, well, soft.

So what's a president to do? First, he can do something for conservatives and that's what he did by nominating U.S. Court of Appeals judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to sit on the Supreme Court.

But, while Bush is mending fences, it also helps him if he can avoid doing something that might cause grief to the Republican base, and specifically to Republicans in Congress.

That's where immigration reform comes in. President Bush has been promising to fix the nation's immigration system for more than four years. It was back in September 2001 -- just days before the 9/11 attacks -- that Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox first talked about pairing U.S. employers with Mexican workers.


A few weeks ago, the administration unveiled the finished product. I admit, my first thought was: "I waited four years for this?"

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff described the administration's immigration reform plan as a three-legged stool. One leg is a request for 1,000 new border patrol agents. Another leg is a call for 100 additional worksite investigators to ensure that businesses comply with existing laws. The third leg allows millions of temporary guest workers that are now in the country illegally to apply for a three-year work visa (with a onetime three-year extension) before returning to their native country.

That amounts to amnesty, even if you'll never get the White House to invoke the phrase. And speaking of phrases, these aren't really "guest workers" per se -- at least not as the concept has come into play historically. Unlike the bracero program of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, these foreign workers are already here. Legalizing their status won't affect the control we have over our borders, or the number of immigrants who come to the United States. Nor are these workers really temporary. Six years is enough time for them to get married and have children -- children who will then be U.S. citizens. What do we do then? Deport parent and child?

Here's where the administration fell short. It needs a fourth leg on that stool -- namely, tougher and more enforceable employer sanctions. The White House talks about increasing worksite enforcement, but that's not the same as toughening employer sanctions. You'll never affect the supply unless you curb demand.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., took the cue. He said he wants to have a debate about border enforcement first, perhaps as early as February, and then consider guest workers later.

Forget something? What about punishing employers?

Besides being short on will, the Bush plan is short on common sense. If the administration can't find 10 million illegal immigrants now, will they have better luck in six years?

The White House can't answer that question. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao told senators the administration's hope is, when their time is up, these workers will step forward and go home.


Yeah, sure they will.

Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., gets it. He has a bill that increases the penalty for knowingly hiring an illegal immigrant from $10,000 to $50,000. He'd also make it easier for employers to go to jail. And yet, Dreier's bill can't get any love from the administration.

It's no wonder why that is. Most Republicans are never eager to crack down on business, big or small. So, by leaving out employer sanctions, the administration avoids putting Republicans in Congress in a ticklish spot. Trouble is, it also avoids reality.

Mr. President, your latest nominee to the Supreme Court might just get you back in the good graces of conservatives. But, since you refuse to crack down on employers, good luck convincing the country you're serious about stopping illegal immigration.

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