Earlier this week, the Bush administration's immigration taskforce leaked word that it was considering a proposal to grant amnesty to the estimated 3 million Mexicans living illegally in the United States. The amnesty plan is one of many proposals under consideration by the taskforce. But just leaking the fact that it was being considered guaranteed prominent coverage and much positive speculation.
Immigration experts believe that such a measure could be a political windfall for Bush, who received only 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in last year's election. As Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration rights advocacy group National Immigration Forum told the Washington Post: "If George W. Bush plays this right, he can achieve an enormous victory both in terms of sensible immigration policy and in repositioning the Republican Party on an issue that has hurt the party badly in recent years." Declaring amnesty would give Bush the added benefit of pleasing many businesses that are eager to tap into a new pool of low-wage workers.
But Bush hasn't backed this proposal. In fact, the immigration taskforce stopped short of recommending it. And experience suggests that like other grandiose plans aimed at luring new supporters -- faith-based initiative, anyone? -- Bush's amnesty plan, were it adopted, would likely be watered down by anti-immigration conservatives in Congress. Senator Phil Gramm of Texas opposes the plan and has already suggested a temporary workers program instead. Bush may opt for Gramm's plan and declare it a healthy compromise with his own.
Democrats shouldn't let him. But rather than challenge Bush's motives, they should embrace the amnesty proposal and immediately up the ante. To begin with, they should insist that Bush not play immigration politics by excluding people of other nationalities from amnesty. Then they should focus on worker protections. Since illegal aliens often lack language skills and are poorly organized, such workers are easy targets for unscrupulous employers. As The American Prospect's Alexander Nguyen pointed out in his article, "High-Tech Migrant Labor," workers in guest programs are often at the mercy of their employers, who must sponsor them. If they're fired or laid off, they're forced to leave the country. (Last year, business balked at proposed worker protections, killing a plan for low-wage immigrant labor similar to one conservatives like Gramm favor.) Furthermore, a Department of Labor study found clear evidence of economic intimidation -- about one-fifth of employers illegally underpay foreign temporary workers.
By challenging Bush to enact his proposal in a manner that is fair to Mexican workers (and others), Democrats would force him to back up this calculated outreach bid or risk losing the initial positive coverage. Having to choose publicly between labor rights and business interests is a position Democrats should seek to force Bush into again and again.
If Democrats insist on a strong amnesty program, they'll also spur a debate that could potentially set off an intra-party rift between moderate and conservative Republicans -- like the one that split Democrats over welfare reform -- which would surely expose the other side of the party, the one that isn't disguised by empty talk of "compassion."