Bush Endorses Amnesty Without Endorsing Amnesty

President Bush reportedly told a group of senators privately that he supports amnesty for illegal aliens but that he lacks the courage to say so publically.

President Bush generally favors plans to give millions of illegal immigrants a chance at U.S. citizenship without leaving the country, but does not want to be more publicly supportive because of opposition among conservative House Republicans, according to senators who attended a recent White House meeting.


“Yes, he thinks people should be given a path to citizenship,” said Sen. Mel Martinez., R-Fla., a leading supporter of immigration legislation in the Senate. Martinez said it was implicit in Bush’s remarks that many of the immigrants illegally in the U.S. would be permitted to remain during a lengthy wait and application period.

Under the Senate bill, immigrants in the U.S. longer than five years could apply for citizenship without leaving the country. Those in the U.S. for more than two years but fewer than five would be required to go to a border point of entry, but they could return quickly as legal temporary workers.

Several senators said Bush had spoken in favorable terms about the overall bill, but made it clear he will not issue an endorsement. “I understand that he wants to maintain latitude as he heads into negotiations with the House,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He attended the meeting and is a strong proponent of legislation that would allow most of the 11 million illegal immigrants eventually to apply for citizenship.


On Monday, Bush said “massive deportation isn’t going to work,” and that the Senate “had an interesting approach by saying that if you’d been here for five years or less, you’re treated one way, and five years or more, you’re treated another.” Bush did not mention that measure would allow millions of illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. while waiting for citizenship — a provision sharply criticized by some conservative lawmakers.

Allowing illegals to remain in the country while applying for citizenship is amnesty; there’s no two ways about that. Michelle Malkin agrees and prints many angry e-mails she has gotten on the subject.

While I am intellectually and viscerally opposed to rewarding lawbreakers by letting them jump ahead of those who have been waiting patiently in line, Bush is almost certainly right that, as a practical matter, we’re not going to round up eleven million workers and expel them from the country.

My problem with this is the president’s lack of leadership. While, constitutionally, he probably should wait for the Congress to complete action on domestic legislation before weighing in, that’s not how it has worked for the last three quarters of a century. Presidents are expected to lead on the big issues.

While Malkin and others are right that this is an issue that could split the Republican Party–and the Democratic Party, for that matter–it is nonetheless the president’s duty to lead. It’s not as if this is a new issue that he has not had time to craft a position on. Nor is it the case that, once taking a position, he would give up the ability to compromise once things shape up in Congress.

Ronald Reagan ultimately advocated and signed an amnesty bill twenty years ago. Bush has always wanted to be more like Reagan. But, whatever one thinks of the bill itself, Reagan at least took a stand on the issue.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of bumper stickers that are amusing even when one doesn’t agree with them, Jason Smith offers this one:

Undocumented Border Patrol

It could take off.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Congress, Uncategorized, US Constitution, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    Where’s that political capital when you need it?

  2. McGehee says:

    Ronald Reagan ultimately advocated and signed an amnesty bill twenty years ago. Bush has always wanted to be more like Reagan. But, whatever one thinks of the bill itself, Reagan at least took a stand on the issue.

    And Reagan had the luxury of not knowing at the time that the amnesty bill he favored, would prove to be a boondoggle.

  3. McGehee says:

    Where�s that political capital when you need it?

    Two words: Harriet Miers.

  4. DaveD says:

    Question. I apologize if I missed this but has anyone seen a truly dispassionate study on what the costs would be for significantly relaxing the immigration laws? For example with respect to imposing economic burdens on the health care system, education, law enforcement, etc.

  5. LJD says:

    What does ‘significantly relaxing immigration laws’ entail, exactly.

    For example, if I’m laying on my couch, with a beer in one hand, and the remote in the other, how might I become any more relaxed?