The Magazine

Law and Borders

From the February 28, 2005 issue: The conservative case for Bush's immigration plan.

Feb 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 22 • By TAMAR JACOBY
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Douglas, Arizona

LEE MORGAN'S SMALL, spare office has the somber feel of a personal shrine. A Vietnam veteran with 30 years' experience in the immigration and customs services, Morgan does undercover and investigative work on the Arizona border, now the gateway of choice for illegal immigrants entering the United States from the south. Everything in his lair in the dusty frontier town of Douglas speaks to his patriotism and dedication: his Bronze Star, his Purple Heart, the three folded American flags--comrades' commemorative flags--and proud photos of his fondest undercover busts. Like everyone who works on the border, he has had a new assignment since 9/11. The twin fights against illegal immigration and drugs, though not forgotten, have been subordinated to a new preoccupation--terrorism. But, tough and determined though he is, Morgan is far from confident that he can hold the line.

Every day last year, the immigration service apprehended some 1,400 illegal immigrants trying to cross into Arizona. Over 12 months, along the whole southern border, the total number arrested was more than a million. Morgan has seen too much in life to be anything but candid, and although it's his job to help catch these unauthorized migrants, he criticizes the apprehensions as a waste of time and resources. "They're just poor people trying to feed their families," he shrugs. But that doesn't mean he isn't concerned--very concerned. The main issue in his eyes: the distraction the immigrant influx creates. "What if another 9/11 happens and I'm responsible?" he asks. "What if the bastards come across here in Arizona and I don't catch them because I'm so busy chasing a busboy or a gardener that I don't have time to do my job--my real job--catching terrorists? I don't know how I'll live with myself."

Morgan's personal nightmare is one urgent reason why all Americans, no matter what their politics, should support President Bush's plan to retake control of our southern border. The White House proposal, introduced in early 2004 and allowed to drop from sight during the election year, is back on the table. The president laid out his ideas again in the State of the Union and is reportedly planning a major initiative to take the issue to the public later this spring.

Republicans are no less divided this year than last, and the White House has been working overtime to finesse those divisions. In early February it shrewdly avoided a confrontation in the House by backing a package of tough enforcement measures that many had expected would expose a rift between the president and less immigrant-friendly Republicans. Instead, the administration and its allies cast the "REAL ID Act"--the brainchild of powerful Judiciary Committee chairman James Sensenbrenner--as a first step toward the broader reform they seek, helping the measure pass by a healthy margin. But this will hardly end the discord in Republican ranks, and a major showdown is sure to come, both in Congress and, more broadly, among conservatives across the country.

The Bush plan has two key components: a guest worker program and a transitional measure that would allow illegal immigrants already here and working to earn their way onto the right side of the law and participate legally in the U.S. labor market. Conservative critics lambaste both elements, not just as bad policy, but as inherently un-conservative--out of keeping with core principles and detrimental to Republican interests. The impulse behind the challenge is understandable. Conservative criteria are different: not just security, but the rule of law, traditional values, and national cohesion--not to mention the interests of the GOP. It's also true that the president often touts his proposal in terms designed to appeal across the political spectrum. He talks about "compassion" and a desire to reward "goodhearted" workers, and sometimes this emphasis obscures the hardheaded, conservative case for his approach--a case that begins but does not end with America's economic interests. In reality, though, demonized as it has been on the right, the Bush plan meets every conceivable conservative criterion--with flying colors.