(Jan. 28) Would that there were magic wands in the world.

With such a practical tool in hand, the U.S., with a simple wave, could solve nettlesome — and hopelessly complex — issues like immigration reform.

Immigration is a particularly thorny problem for the U.S., which, in a strong sense, was founded by immigrants for immigrants.

Other foundational tenets may have come and gone — freedom of speech, the right to keep and bear arms, the right to life, all leap to mind. But the desire of foreign-born people to move to the U.S. and take a shot at a share of its immense wealth is as compelling as ever.

Managing immigration has been one of the most vexing problems any administration has faced. And some have taken vastly different tacks, from virtually closing the borders to setting quotas.

President Bush is the latest president to make a stab at settling the immigration problem.

With a simple wave of his magic wand, he intends to make all illegal aliens disappear.

Trouble is, again, magic wands don’t exist. That’s evident in this case because this move is disarmingly ill-thought-out. It will do little to stem the flow of illegal aliens, whether they’re called illegal or not.

Worse, it stands to create a permanent underclass of foreign-born workers who have little hope of citizenship.
Let’s look at it.

Bush has proposed sweeping immigration changes that would allow the 8 million to 12 million illegal aliens thought to be in the U.S. to remain in the country if they have a job and apply for a guest-worker card.

This isn’t amnesty, the president says. But it sure seems that way.

First off, how does one account for each and every illegal alien, since by nature they are not documented? The Washington, D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, says that even the high estimate of 12 million illegals is more than likely a gross undercount.

The federation estimates there could be as many 800,000 illegal farm workers in the U.S.

Let’s say that, somehow, every illegal worker steps forward and becomes documented. Who will monitor such a program? The federal government already has legions of workers who watch the border with Mexico.

U.S. Customs has its hands tied as it is with new regulations for border crossing. The Department of Homeland Security and its army of 24,000 workers already are tied up shoring up border security. Inspections are rigorous and comprehensive.

Will Bush have to create a new federal bureau simply to monitor a force of guest workers that is likely to only mushroom? Somebody is going to have to take the responsibility of enforcement.

Opponents of the move criticized it as a political ploy, and that certainly wouldn’t be any great shock in an election year.

But, if that is the case, whose votes is Bush going to attract?

Guest workers don’t vote, nor do their families in Mexico.

Indeed, Bush’s proposal does not appear to be any sort of clear path to citizenship for the affected workers.

Even Commerce Secretary Donald Evans said after Bush’s announcement that there would be no guarantees for alien workers in this program.

Bush already has fairly strong support among Hispanics, at least compared to his support among blacks. In the 2000 election, he got 35% of the Hispanic vote, compared to Al Gore’s 62%. By contrast, Bush attracted only 9% of the black vote, to Gore’s 90%.

It seems unlikely that opening up the borders won’t strengthen Bush’s standing with Latino voters. If anything, the president’s strong relationship with Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, probably would help him as much as anything else.

Fox has said he wants an open border with the U.S., perhaps because Mexico has a burgeoning force of migrant workers of its own, and this is one way he can ease the pressure on that sector of his own country’s work force.

Wages in the U.S. also are better than any in Mexico, and a lot of that money will make its way back into Mexico.

For agriculture employers, the changes may be a mixed bag. It may mean a steady stream of dependable migrant labor for employers who seem to be gnashing their teeth over the prospect of worker shortages each harvest season. Bush’s move certainly would help those employers.

But, from an economic standpoint, there may be a higher cost. Illegal farm workers already represent a significant underclass in the U.S., with wages lower than their counterparts with green cards.

If Bush’s plan were to be enacted and erstwhile illegal workers get themselves on the road to guest-worker status, their wages are bound to be adjusted to be more in line with earnings that legal guest workers are paid.

Employers will have to brace themselves for some increased labor costs, not to mention a morass of paperwork.

On the other hand, a flood of new legal workers may serve as a weight on wages for everyone. Either way, somebody would be shortchanged.

That the president sees the need for a comprehensive, workable immigration policy that benefits agriculture and other industries is commendable.

The produce industry has been pushing for a suitable guest-worker program for years, after all.

On the positive side, as far as agriculture is concerned with this issue, Bush’s proposal appears to give a boost to AgJobs — the Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act of 2003.

That piece of legislation would allow about 500,000 agricultural workers who lack immigration status the opportunity to apply for permanent resident status after working for at least 360 days in agriculture in the next six years.

AgJobs has widespread support in both houses of Congress. But even its future is not clear at this point.

Clearly, the president recognizes that immigration is a significant problem that isn’t going to go away.

But recognizing a problem and solving it are different issues.