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Thursday, January 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. / Syndicated columnist
Rove's fingerprints all over Bush immigration plan

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DALLAS — For nearly a year, I've heard that President Bush has been discreetly promising Latino Republicans that he would get an immigration deal with Mexico legalizing some number of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

I found this interesting, given the president's emphatic insistence — as recently as a few weeks ago — that his administration opposes "blanket amnesty" or mass legalization.

Now things are about to get much more interesting. The administration has come up with an immigration-reform proposal that will — as Bush said last month — "match any willing employer with any willing employee."

Administration officials say the plan would allow immigrants to cross the border legally in order to take jobs that American workers don't want. Borrowing an idea from a bill in Congress sponsored by Sen. John McCain and Reps. Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake, all of Arizona, the administration proposes creating a Web-based job registry where employers can post hiring opportunities so U.S. workers can see them first. Whatever jobs Americans don't want, immigrants are free to take. So, in effect, Mexican workers can come to the United States legally "as long as there is a job waiting for them."

I understand that the administration feels it needs to address concerns that immigrants take jobs from American workers. But the Web site idea is flat-out ridiculous. I'll save everyone the suspense: There's always a job waiting for those who will do the dirtiest jobs under the worst conditions for the lowest pay and most paltry of benefits.

Besides, those who oppose illegal immigration don't do it because they think immigrants are getting all the good jobs. They know better. Many of them would claim they oppose illegal immigration because it is illegal. The Bush plan short-circuits that argument by allowing people to come here legally. Of course, this is all academic. The real reason that too much immigration leaves many Americans so squeamish is the country's changing demographics and the slow but steady transformation of Main Street into Little Mexico.

The plan would also provide a mechanism for some undocumented workers already here to become legal, something that is essential before one can even think about bringing in new immigrants.

And here's something really revolutionary. According to the administration, Bush is intent on making it possible for illegal immigrants to collect some of the billions of dollars in Social Security taxes that they pay into the system each year but have never been able to collect because they use phony Social Security cards. Under the Bush plan, the workers may have to return to Mexico to receive their benefits. Still, this is an amazing gesture. It's also the right thing to do. This is the immigrants' money. They earned it, and they have a right to claim it someday.

The architect of all this is no less a heavyweight than White House political strategist Karl Rove. After spending over a year on the back burner, immigration reform is getting the royal treatment from the White House. And just in time. Next week, Bush travels to Monterrey, Mexico, for the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of leaders from around the hemisphere. While there, Bush is supposed to restart immigration talks in a private meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Fox wants an immigration deal, and Bush seems eager to give him one. But don't make the mistake of thinking that the White House is doing all this for the sake of international friendship. It has more to do with pleasing business interests in the United States.

One group that won't be pleased is right-wing nativists who are certain to hit the warpath over anything that resembles amnesty.

The White House must know that. But by putting Rove in charge, it is saying, in effect: "Bring 'em on."

This is too much fun. I'll say this about Team Bush: I admire their spunk. They don't seem to care a whit about angering the anti-illegal-immigration crusaders. Maybe they figure that, angry or not, these nativists have nowhere to go.

Personally, I'm still queasy about amnesty. My main objection is that the right to live legally in the United States is much too precious to be trivialized by a massive government decree that does for individuals what they should do for themselves — take whatever steps are necessary to apply for legal residency. This isn't easy, but it isn't supposed to be.

Even as the grandson of a Mexican immigrant, I believe that. And now, frankly, I'm a little freaked out by the idea that suddenly this puts me to the right of Karl Rove.

Ruben Navarrette's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

Copyright 2004, The Dallas Morning News

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