While plenty of attention has been given to the construction of a physical barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border designed to stem illegal immigration, the finer points of the immigration debate are often missed. Just to get it out of the way, I'll state the facts and figures and forget the wall for now: the wall costs between $1 to $10 million per mile, and it would cost several billions of dollars to cover a substantial enough part of the border to matter.
President Bush visited the border yesterday at Yuma, Arizona, to commemorate the opening of a new border guard station, and also to take the opportunity to push for his immigration reform policies. While the bill authorizing the construction of the wall along with other enforcement measures was passed with bipartisan support, Bush stressed that enforcement is only half of the problem. New, comprehensive legislation is necessary to tackle immigration reform, that not only places an emphasis on enforcement, but also on what to do with the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country.
The problem is, here is where that bipartisan support falls apart. Democrats are actually closer to the President's ideas for reform than his own Republican party-mates, which include a temporary guest worker program, and avenues to citizenship for current illegal immigrants. Conservatives vehemently oppose any plan that would allow illegal immigrants to gain citizenship, calling it an amnesty that would reward illegal activity. President Bush's response so far has been to try and sell his immigration reform to Republicans, from whom he lacks support, while counting on the same Democrat support for his plans that he received for an earlier bill that passed the Senate but stalled in the House. However, the more Bush courts GOP support, the more he may alienate his ironically Democratic base on the issue. "For instance, one plan would require illegal immigrants wishing to remain in the United States to return to their country of origin first and pay a $10,000 fine to obtain a three-year work visa. The visas would be renewable, at a cost of $3,500." Such prohibitive costs may end up meaning nothing at all, if these visas become practically impossible so as they might as well not exist.
House Speaker Pelosi has warned the President that Democratic support is uneven, and that any reform legislation cannot pass without significant GOP support. This means the Bush adminstration is going to have to find a way to negotiate over what some conservatives see as an nonnegotiable issue. In point of fact, the difficulties the White House face in brokering such legislation is more a sign of the President's ebbing political capital than anything else. Bush can't afford to have his own way, but any concessions to the right will cost him support from the left, and vice versa. In the end, odds are nothing will be done in the short time frame available, as the looming 2008 presidential elections draw legislators' attention way from the death throes of this President's adminstration. In the meantine, American tech jobs will contine to suffer as highly skilled immigrant labor remains capped at 65,000 visas a year, and legal immigrants will continue to be dissuaded from remaining in the U.S. with the difficulty and enormous backlog in processing applications for residency.
In effect, the U.S. is facing the costs while not being able to enjoy any of the benefits of immigration, legal or otherwise.