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The Arizona Republic.

A Barrier To True Reforms
October 28, 2004

By Tamar Jacoby

Sometimes – especially in an election year – you have to know how to read between the lines.

Presidential candidates are nothing if not careful, and you don’t get to the top of the ticket without knowing how to duck a difficult question. But candidates are also highly skilled at telegraphing their views on hot-button issues – and that’s exactly what President Bush did last week when a reporter asked about his position on Proposition 200.

The conversation took place on Air Force One en route to the debate in Tempe, and it was spokesman Dan Bartlett who answered for the White House.

“President Bush has made it a habit,” the aide began diplomatically, “not to get involved in local ballot initiatives . . . the people of Arizona can make up their own minds on this.”

But that was only the bread in the sandwich – the lines you have to read between – and the three long paragraphs that followed made crystal clear: Not only is the president’s approach to border issues diametrically opposed to Proposition 200, but passage of the ballot initiative could deal a serious setback to the White House’s plans, delaying if not derailing a real solution to the problem of illegal immigration.

Listen to the second sentence of the White House response. It began with the word “however” and went on from there, clearly distancing the administration from the punitive spirit of Proposition 200: “We’re going to get tough on our borders,” the spokesman said, “but [the administration] also wants a more humane system for treating illegal immigrants who are here.”

Then came the real meat: an extended explanation of how the president thinks we should solve the problem – with a guest worker program.

In other words, his thinking couldn’t be more different than the thinking behind Proposition 200.

Proposition 200 completely ignores the context of illegal immigration – why foreigners come to the U.S. in the first place. President Bush, in contrast, believes we must start with those reasons, recognizing the global forces of supply and demand that drive workers across the border to do jobs most Americans do not want to do. What’s more, he proposes that we make it legal, channeling these now unauthorized laborers through a safe, orderly guest worker program.

Of course, any guest worker program would have to be backed by better enforcement: tougher, smarter enforcement, both on the border and in the workplace. But Proposition 200 would have the effect of driving illegal immigrants further underground, and the White House believes we must eliminate that underground economy by inviting unauthorized foreigners to come forward and participate in the guest worker program.

In other words, instead of locking them out of the system, the president’s plan lures them in – to their benefit and ours. After all, unlike unauthorized workers, legal immigrants don’t steal across the border; they come in an orderly way. They arrive with proper papers. They don’t need help from smugglers. And because they are authorized to work in the U.S., they can bargain for the same wages as American workers.

Supporters of the ballot initiative say they want to “send a message” to Washington, prodding the president and Congress to do something about illegal immigration. But you don’t get people to do something by encouraging them to do exactly the opposite. Specifically, in this case, you can’t tell politicians to crack down and then expect them to open up – as the president believes we must do – enlarging the legal channels through which foreign workers can enter the United States.

Worse still, a victory for Proposition 200 could discourage elected officials – particularly Republicans in Congress – from supporting the White House’s more compassionate but, for many, counterintuitive plan.

The ballot initiative would send a message, all right, but it would be exactly the wrong message – a message that the White House is mistaken and its approach to immigration misguided, or worse.

The president is too diplomatic to say so, but his spokesman couldn’t have been clearer. Both answers can’t be right: as the president likes to say, you’re either with us or against us. And that means the opposite strategy – the strategy behind Proposition 200 – can only be wrong.

Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York-based think tank that applies market-oriented principles to research.

©2004 The Arizona Republic

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