Working without a net

President Bush is a man on a tightrope, tiptoeing precariously along the thousands of miles of the U.S.-Mexican border — and now he has just looked down and discovered that he has no political safety net.

He has committed himself to commendable twin goals: securing the thousand of miles of the Mexican border and offering a compassionate path to U.S. citizenship for America’s 12,000 undocumented illegal immigrants. His problem is with his own kind _ conservative Republican hardliners who favor the former, but hate the latter and control the House of Representatives.

We’ll get to them. But first, to understand what we’re really talking about, we need to remember two larger-than-life figures from an era long past: Robert McNamara and Abe Rosenthal.

McNamara came to mind Monday night when Bush told the nation about his high-tech border solution _ infrared and motion sensors, airborne surveillance. In the late 1960s, LBJ’s defense secretary also had a border problem: the one between North and South Vietnam. North Vietnamese troops were infiltrating the South undeterred. McNamara’s solution was high tech for the times: An electronic border, with sensors to detect motion. (The so-called McNamara’s Line was the first Washington exclusive of a young Newsday reporter who is now writing what you are reading.) Huge fields were cleared, sensors were installed. But it never really worked. Stray animals often set it off; enemy troops often didn’t. There were gaps. And a western bypass, as Hanoi’s troops poured in via Cambodia.

We do not know whether Bush’s plan for securing the U.S.-Mexican border with infrared and motion sensors, airborne monitors _ will also prove impenetrable on paper, but perhaps penetrable on the ground.

Rosenthal comes to mind every time House Republicans rail about illegal immigrants _ rounding them up and shipping them back. A Pulitzer Prize winner who rose to become editor of The New York Times, Rosenthal once confided to me, at a watering hole along some presidential campaign trail, that he and his family slipped into America as illegal immigrants. His parents left their native Byelorussia for Canada, where Abe’s father became a fur trapper and trader. Seeking a better life, the family hopped on a train, crossed into the United States, undocumented and undetected, and settled in the Bronx. Abe Rosenthal become a naturalized American in adulthood. He remained, until his death just last week, perhaps one of the nation’s proudest and most patriotic Americans.

The solution to today’s porous border to the South cannot be rounding up and shipping back 12 million people, most of whom live lawfully and productively and may be our next Pulitzer winners or cancer vaccine inventors. Yet that is just about all the House hardliners have to offer.

President Bush is right to stay the course, resisting opposition from his fellow conservatives. Years ago, as a Texas governor, he used political clout to keep them in line or at least silent when he first pushed immigration reform. He’d bought into Karl Rove’s grand scheme to remake Republicans into America’s perpetual majority party: Show compassion by offering illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, hoping America’s burgeoning Latino population would vote Republican.

But now he is a president flummoxed by his disastrous mishandling of Iraq, with poll numbers sliding and political clout long gone. To appease fellow conservatives, he is sending 6,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border _ not to catch illegals entering but to assist border patrols by doing secondary tasks such as building fences and urban barriers, surveillance and so on. On this, he has achieved unity: All sides agreed it is far too few troops to make much difference.

But wait. Perhaps the number is right, but Bush is sending them to the wrong front. If he really wants to halt illegal immigration, just order 6,000 troops to strike at the source of America’s illegal immigration problem. Launch military invasions _ maybe parachuting troops and tank brigades _ against the U.S. employers who lure the illegals by hiring them at sub-minimum wages. For real impact, start with the biggest companies. Round up the CEOs whose policy is don’t ask, don’t tell. Quibblers will say it is blatantly illegal. But, that doesn’t seem to be a biggie for this crowd.

Finally, Bush can adapt the success at Arizona’s Lake Havasu to seal off the Rio Grande border. Those clever Arizonans bought the London Bridge, took it apart, shipped it over and set it up as a thriving tourist mecca.

Maybe, just maybe, Bush can convince America’s debtor, China, of the wisdom of safeguarding Beijing’s investment by packing up and shipping over the Great Wall _ and sealing off the USA, from the Rio Grande to the Pacific.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)