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By Philippe Legrain ADD COMMENTS

President Bush is trying to have it both ways in America’s great immigration debate. To placate anti-immigration conservatives, he plans to send 6,000 National Guard troops to patrol the Mexican border temporarily while the civilian Border Patrol recruits 6,000 new staff. To keep pro-immigration businesspeople on side, he proposes a temporary guest-worker programme that would allow illegal immigrants in the US to regularise their situation and provide a legal channel for foreigners to come work in the US in future. His political calculation appears to be that if he can reassure ordinary Americans that their borders are secure, most will be amenable to having large numbers of immigrants doing the jobs that Americans can’t do or won’t do. More likely, his mixed message will leave everyone confused and end up satisfying nobody.

Beefing up security on the Mexican border is mostly a symbolic gesture. Border Patrol numbers have been rising inexorably for twenty years, with scarcely a dent in the number of immigrants who make it past them. Where people are desperate they will find a way: East Germany used to shoot fugitives trying to escape across the Berlin Wall, but people still took their chances and made it across. Bush cannot satisfy the demands of those who want the Mexican border sealed. But even though clamping down on illegal immigrants will not make a dent in the numbers crossing, it will add to the hardship and suffering of the foreign workers on which the US depends and reinforce the message of social conservatives that immigrants are a threat to America’s way of life.

The notion that immigrants are a threat to America jars with Bush’s laudable (albeit imperfect) plans for a temporary-worker programme. The idea behind the scheme is to match American employers who can’t find the workers they need domestically with willing and able foreign workers, to the benefit of the US economy as a whole. At least initially, the estimated 12 million or so illegal immigrants in the US would also be able to apply for legal work, allowing them to escape from their lawless underworld. In that very real sense, then, Bush’s scheme would bolster the rule of law as well as boosting the US economy. But by playing to fears that a Mexican invasion threatens America, Bush’s border measures undermine support for his worker scheme: if foreign workers are good for America, why is he trying to keep them out?; and if they aren’t, why is he making it easier for more to come and those already in the US to stay?

Posted 16 May 2006 in Blog

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