When they torpedoed his immigration-reform bill, congressional Republicans challenged President Bush to enforce the existing laws more vigorously. Now his administration has taken them up on it.
In announcements in Washington from the secretaries of homeland security and commerce and reinforced by a White House pronouncement from the elder George Bush’s Kennebunkport vacation home, the administration announced a nationwide crackdown on illegal immigration.
The crackdown includes the usual remedies — a speedup in construction of the border fence, hiring more Border Patrol agents and stepped-up detentions of apprehended illegals. But it also includes a step the government has shied away from — going after employers with illegal immigrants on their payrolls. They will be required to fire workers with phony Social Security numbers and take more stringent measures to verify citizenship.
It is no accident that these measures were announced just as members of Congress had dispersed to their districts for a long recess. Bush could have just as easily done this immediately after the immigration bill failed in June. The announcement of the crackdown is likely to be popular with the public, giving Republicans a badly needed short-term boost, but the administration is also betting that, long term, the disruption from the crackdown and the outcry from employers will revive immigration reform.
There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in this country, about half of them employed. The administration will target with stepped-up raids businesses that traditionally employ large numbers of illegals, and the Homeland Security Department will work with the Social Security Administration to target the holders of fake Social Security numbers.
Whatever impact the crackdown has on a reform bill, it will test a key proposition advanced by backers of immigration reform: That illegal immigrants play a significant and useful role in the U.S. economy by taking jobs in agriculture, meatpacking, construction and the service industry that Americans won’t.
The Bush administration believes that when the jobs go begging after illegals are forced out of them, the lawmakers and the public will want a second look at immigration reform.