The call by George W. Bush for major reform of our failed immigration policy was undoubtedly made with election-year eyes fixed on the growing Latino vote. But less than a week later, a coalition of Latino, civil rights and labor groups responded with a TV ad campaign in Spanish labeling the Bush proposals insufficient and skewed toward corporate employers.

The proposals would make many of the estimated 8 million to 14 million undocumented immigrants in the United States eligible for temporary legal status, with new guestworker visas renewable for three-year periods. And employers could bring in new immigrant workers on the same terms. But these programs would provide no clear path to permanent-resident status or citizenship and would risk creating a new class of second-tier residents, just as the labor-backed TV spot warns.

Still, the heaviest fire against the President’s proposals comes not from the left but from his own right wing, laying bare the GOP’s Wall Street/Main Street tensions. Corporate America favors the plan as one that would stabilize its coveted low-wage work force. The White House seeks an expanded Latino vote, and border-state Republicans like Arizona Senator John McCain–who has already introduced a reform proposal–seek practical solutions to problems that are overwhelming their districts. In this election year, however, scores of Republican Congress members, ensconced in safe, conservative, mostly white districts, find no allure in appealing to Latinos, and a restrictionist view on immigration prevails within the Republican caucus.

In other words, unless Bush makes a full-court press against the bulk of his own party–much as Bill Clinton did to pass NAFTA–his immigration initiative will be DOA.

There is little to celebrate if this happens, although Democrats and progressives are naturally reluctant to hand the White House a major victory. Bush’s plan is a few tortillas short of the “whole enchilada” of immigration reform that former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda says should be on the table, but it’s doubtful that Congress will go even that far. The intensity of GOP opposition to its own President’s proposals, along with the recent backlash against (and repeal of) driver’s licenses for California’s undocumented residents, is a red-alert that immigration reform in the current atmosphere is going to be slow and incremental.

Eventually a much broader program than the one announced by Bush is needed. But approval of at least a tweaked version of his plan would begin to move policy in the right direction, toward ever more enhanced legal status for the undocumented. Future legislation could fill in the biggest hole in the White House plan, the absence of what’s called “earned legalization”–legalese for the dreaded “A” word, amnesty. But there can be no long-term solution to the problem of the undocumented unless everyone who has been working here, paying taxes and obeying the law is given a chance to come out of the shadows and earn legalization, permanent residency and, finally, citizenship. Such deeper reforms are now being endorsed in one form or another by all the Democratic presidential candidates and were highlighted last year in the labor-backed immigrant bus ride across the country [see Julie Quiroz-Martínez, “Let Freedom Roll,” October 27, 2003].

The Bush blueprint recognizes the economic existence of immigrant workers but does nothing to offer them full political and civil rights. A better plan would include a full amnesty, an opening of the door to green cards and citizenship to those who have been working here, and (unlike the Bush proposal) would not grant employers such a central role in the process. While there are no short-term prospects of passage of such comprehensive measures, the dire situation–one of hypocrisy, denial and death–on the southern border cries out for some forward movement. And neither major party can claim the moral high ground here. During his two terms, with bipartisan compliance, President Clinton spent billions to blockade the border with infrared sensors and cameras, stadium-level lighting and thousands of armed agents. Bush, during his first three years in office, worsened matters by defining border policy strictly in antiterrorism security terms.

These measures have been catastrophic and have not stanched the flow of illegal immigrants. The Border Patrol made the same number of apprehensions last year–about a million–as it did a decade ago. But the immigrants were diverted from populated areas, through freezing mountains and parched deserts, so that last year alone more than 400 people perished trying to cross into the United States. Since the get-tough policy was initiated in 1994, more than 2,600 have died–more than ten times the number who died trying to cross the Berlin wall during its three-decade history. Meanwhile, convenient for American industry, immigration enforcement in the workplace is virtually nonexistent.

Perhaps the most redeeming aspect of the President’s announcement is the re-opening of a debate that has been shamefully absent. On Capitol Hill, restrictionist conservatives and pro-amnesty liberals could easily band together to sink the initiative and maintain the abhorrent status quo. More challenging and more urgent is taking advantage of the White House offer and fashioning a different sort of bipartisan agreement. It might not achieve right away what we need to overhaul our failed immigration policy, but it would at least start it along the right track.