The newly unveiled George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum has occasioned a lot of reflection on our last president’s accomplishments and failures.
There are lessons within those walls. In the case of immigration reform, especially, we’d do well to revisit the good intentions of the Bush administration and how they went awry. We’re on the brink of possibly missing another opportunity to resolve this issue.
Early in his administration, Bush set about the task of reforming America’s dysfunctional immigration situation. As a Texan, he understood our nation’s historic connections with Mexico, expressing sympathy for Mexican-American families separated by visa backlogs.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, such an enlightened view of immigration policy became a hard sell. Any sort of momentum toward dealing with immigrants in a positive manner was scuttled. America went to war. The agency that had managed immigration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, was dissolved and replaced under the Department of Homeland Security. Border security and fighting terrorism became the focus of immigration policy.
Only in 2007 was Bush able to put immigration reform legislation before Congress. It was killed by his own party.
More than a decade later, another president is on a similar cusp. Barack Obama enjoys unprecedented backing for an overhaul of U.S. immigration law. He is backed by a strong coalition of the faith, business and law enforcement groups.
A new poll released by the National Immigration Forum Action Fund shows that a majority of Americans — even a majority of Republicans — support reforms, including a pathway to citizenship for those who have entered the country illegally.
After November’s election, in which their party was abandoned by Latino voters, Republican hardliners were forced to accept that their opposition to reform was too costly.
And then, Boston. The bombings have become a pretext for many Republicans to retreat from sensible immigration legislation, even though the measures have nothing to do with terrorism.
Rep. Steve King of Iowa, for example, has long opposed the Senate’s proposals, in particular any proposal to fairly address the 11 million people currently in the country illegally. So it was no surprise that he was among the first to attack the proposed reforms citing the case of the Tsarnaev brothers, the Boston terrorists, whose family had legally immigrated, seeking asylum.
Actually, King didn’t even wait until the bombers had been identified. Within 24 hours of the Boston Marathon attack, he was suggesting that immigration reform would make Americans less safe from terrorists.
Other Republicans have followed suit, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who in the course of his diatribes bungled basic facts about the Tsarnaev family .
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, is calling for an overhaul to the asylum system. The government should know whether applicants are “engaging in aggressive tactics” in their homelands, he said, indicating little knowledge of the complicated and extremely thorough processes currently in place.
Who could have predicted when the brothers were children — they immigrated at ages 9 and 16 — that they would one day become terrorists against their adopted country?
Lax immigration procedures didn’t let alien radicals slip in undetected. Rather, the young men became radicalized while living here, and familiar bureaucratic issues — a lack of communication between federal agencies such as the FBI and the CIA, not checking watch lists for overseas travel appear — appear, at this writing, to have been the point of failure for detecting a threat.
Terrorist attacks are an ongoing concern for all of us. They should not be a pretext for derailing reform we’ve needed for decades.
MARY SANCHEZ writes for The Kansas City Star. Her column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.