The Senate's action Wednesday in approving 500 miles of vehicle barriers and 370 miles of triple fencing to the Mexican-U.S. border will have a huge effect on the immigration debate now raging.
By a vote of 83 to 16, the senators amended the immigration bill now before them to include a fencing provision akin to that already passed by the House.
Walls work. The Israeli border fence has sharply curtailed suicide/homicide bombings in Israel. The proposed U.S. border fence should stop most of the illegal immigration and clear the way for a generous guest worker and path-to-citizenship program - and also reduce the carnage. (Mexican government statistics say 4,000 people have died in the past decade while seeking to cross the border to freedom and economic opportunity.)
The media reaction to the Bush speech emphasized his so-called "militarization" of the border by temporarily sending in National Guard units to patrol there while the government recruits and trains new Border Guards. But a shift from the 9,000 agents now on the border to 12,000 or even to 18,000 isn't the way to stem the flow of illegals.
Do the math. A 2,000-mile border manned 24/7 (four or five shifts each week) by 18,000 agents reduces to fewer than 4,000 on duty at any given time. Allowing for supervisors and clerical assignments, that works out to only slightly more than one agent for each three-quarters of a mile.
That's no way to seal anything. But a fence will provide the physical and psychological barrier to slow illegal immigration dramatically.
And it will drain some of the passion from the debate. As Americans see the wall going up, mile by mile, it will give us the assurance that something is being done to control our border and protect our sovereignty.
But politically it will do more than that. It will assuage the anger over immigration and will allow the Congress to legislate a guest-worker program that satisfies our economic needs and a path-to-citizenship program that will assure that we do not have a Latino leper colony developing in this country.
With an earned path to citizenship like the one Bush outlined on Monday (including a requirement to learn English, stay arrest-free, pay taxes and work), we can assimilate those Mexicans who are here and again become a melting pot.
Bush's program will pass in some form. It is the sensible middle ground and the pressures from each end of the debate assure that it is the center that will prevail: A strong fence, National Guard units, a good guest-worker program and an earned path to citizenship.
Because it is a center position, both ends of the spectrum will rail and rant about the details - as does anyone entering a negotiation. (Remember, President Bill Clinton's first balanced budget was rejected by the Senate 99-0 in 1995, but ultimately became the basis of the successful bipartisan budget deal.) Centrist initiatives meet a controversial reaction but ultimately shape the debate and tend to pass.
Monday's speech may help Bush's polling - but this is not his comeback issue. Immigration, while exciting passions, is not the central issue facing our country as a whole. To truly reverse his hideous downward slide, he needs to take a strong stand on a more vital issue - such as the need to free ourselves from the grip of an oil-based economy.
And come back he can - after all, Clinton did it.