The Magazine

Losing Friends and Influence

President Bush misjudges immigration and the ports issue.

Mar 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 24 • By FRED BARNES
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Like few presidents before him, President Bush was poised for a consequential and potentially quite successful second term. It hasn't worked out that way (so far). Bush made one strategic error in 2005, guessing wrongly that the country was adult and serious enough to reform Social Security. Now he faces at least two immediate challenges: immigration and the Dubai ports flap.

Let's start with immigration, which the Senate is slated to take up in late March. On immigration, Bush is not a conventional conservative or any other kind of conservative. His instinct is to sympathize with immigrants. Bush believes that whether they come to the United States legally or illegally, they come for the right reasons, chiefly for economic opportunity and the chance to shape their own destiny in life.

This has put the president deeply at odds with most Republicans in Congress and the army of conservative talk radio hosts and their listeners around the country. They regard Bush as a slacker on immigration. Their primary aim is to tighten security along the border with Mexico. And the legislation that passed the House last December would do exactly that, partly by erecting a 700-mile wall.

Bush had little influence in the House debate, though he wound up endorsing the measure. His mistake was having proposed in 2004, as his first major immigration initiative, a program to allow illegal immigrants to work legally in this country. Most Republicans and conservatives want stepped-up border security to come first. They're skeptical, at best, about a "guest worker" program.

Bush invited members of Congress and his cabinet, plus leaders of Hispanic groups, to his speech at the White House in January 2004 calling for more immigration into the United States. "The citizenship line . . . is too long and our current limits on legal immigration are too low," he said. But he devoted most of his address to illegal immigrants.

"Out of common sense and fairness, our laws should allow willing workers to enter our country and fill jobs that Americans are not filling," he declared. "We must make our immigration laws more rational and more humane. And I believe we can do so without jeopardizing the livelihoods of American citizens." His plan would "offer legal status, as temporary workers, to the millions of undocumented men and women now employed in the United States and to those in foreign countries who seek to participate in the program and have been offered employment here."

Note the size of the program Bush envisions: millions. It could conceivably cover all the illegal immigrants now living in America. This, of course, enrages Bush's Republican and conservative critics on immigration and makes them all the more dubious of his plans and of him.

How could this adversarial relationship on immigration have been avoided? "If we had to do it again, we probably would lead with enforcement," a White House official said. In other words, soften up the immigrant-bashers with dramatically increased border security and then, and only then, seek a temporary worker program in a year or two. That might have succeeded.

As things now stand, the president's hopes rest with the Senate. His strategy is to get senators to include a modest guest worker program in their bill--a program that could be expanded later. To get the House to accept it, the legislation would be larded with strong enforcement provisions. Who knows? This might work.

On the Dubai ports deal, the failure at the White House was in not seeing political trouble on the horizon. Foreign business deals involving American national security that are approved by the Committee on Foreign Investments normally draw little media or political attention.

But the purchase by a Dubai firm of the British company that manages terminals in six U.S. ports did. In fact, attacks on the deal for supposedly putting America's national security in jeopardy continued for more than a week before the White House responded. It had not consulted members of Congress about the deal beforehand.

The White House was firm and conciliatory in defending the deal but also tardy. The demagoguery on Capitol Hill had gotten out of hand by the time Bush intervened. Most of the criticism focused on the notion that an Arab country with past al Qaeda ties would be in charge of security at the six ports.

This isn't true. Security would remain in the hands of the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs Service. And the personnel operating the ports would be the same. Only the company owning the terminals would change.

But the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is part, was the home of two 9/11 terrorists and banks there had transferred money to al Qaeda. This alone was sufficient to bar the deal for what seemed like most of Congress. Bush countered that the UAE had become a full-blown ally in the war on terrorism since 9/11.