In this year's State of the Union speech, President Bush did little to address his policy on immigration, the issue that concerns most U.S. Hispanics. A few brief sentences about the need for "orderly and secure borders," and a "rational, humane guest-worker program that rejects amnesty" summed up his perspective on a problem that is taking an increasing toll.
While there was much speculation that Bush would try to rebound from last year's Social Security reform debacle with a bold new set of domestic initiatives, he fixated on the causes of his plummeting approval ratings. Rather than deal in any serious way with immigration or other issues such as health care, the environment, taxes, campaign finance reform and even Katrina, Bush dwelled on the Iraq War and his domestic spying program.
Interestingly, Bush's stance on immigration issues continues to fall short of the demands of his right-wing critics. He asserted that "protectionists" who want to "wall off the economy" feel that "immigrants are somehow bad for the economy, even though this economy could not function without them." This startling admission is clearly in line with the Clinton administration-initiated free-trade agenda and with Bush's initial approach to immigration in early 2001.
But Bush didn't propose full rights and citizenship for workers who are doing the dirty work that is keeping America's economy afloat. His guest-worker program would allow immigrants to work here temporarily but they eventually would be sent back to their country of origin. While they were here, they would work in a situation that would almost amount to indentured servitude.
Nor did Bush propose anything for the undocumented immigrants who are already here, living on the margins with limited civil rights and access to health care. They are at risk of becoming another permanent underclass, one even further removed from American civil society than previously established urban minority groups.
Bush may recognize that immigrant workers are needed to drive down labor costs (wages and health care) so that American business can compete with "new competitors like China and India," as he put it in his speech. "Keeping America competitive requires an immigration system that upholds our laws, reflects our values and serves the interests of our economy."
But the current policy toward immigration and immigrants that the Bush administration promotes does little to protect immigrants from laws against labor exploitation, does not respect the American value of welcoming immigrants and encourages employers to lower wages and benefits, thereby reducing the buying power of the majority of our citizens and eroding our economy.
Ed Morales is a contributor to The New York Times and Newsday, and author of "Living in Spanglish" (St. Martin's Press, 2002). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.