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Bush Trades His Principles

Authors: Arthur C. Helton, and Jagdish N. Bhagwati
April 18, 2002
Financial Times


Trade and immigration policy were two of George W. Bush's chief claims to virtue. The US president stood for free trade, never once surrendering to the protectionist slogan "free but fair trade", unlike many Democrats. He was also a spirited opponent of anti-immigration rhetoric and sentiments, unlike many Republicans.

A year into his presidency, however, it is clear that his actions on both issues have been marked by folly. He has violated the essential principles of non-discrimination, reversing long-standing US policies embodying them. It is time to sound the alarm bells. Take trade policy. The Bush administration's surrender to protectionism on steel was deplorable enough. Worse still is the way the steel tariffs have been implemented. The point of safeguard action is that it is non-discriminatory. That is why economists have advocated its use in preference to anti-dumping actions (where a specific trader - often the most efficient supplier or the least preferred - is targeted) if the politics gets tough.

But the administration has proceeded to find all sorts of ways - presumably compatible with World Trade Organisation rules - to exempt friends such as Brazil, South Africa and South Korea while targeting others such as the European Union. More astonishing is that when US steel users predictably lined up in droves to plead for exemptions, the Bush administration obliged in preferential fashion.

The willingness to sacrifice non-discrimination to political expediency is even more manifest in Mr Bush's immigration policy. It is seen at its worst in the recent, pro-immigration initiatives that have been designed, and targeted, to benefit Mexico and its illegal emigrants across the Rio Grande. Presidents Bush and Vincente Fox have been engaged in designing US immigration policy reforms exclusively from the lens of Mexican migrants. In return for stricter border enforcement, the proposed policy changes would offer permanent residence to Mexicans illegally in the US, and a guest worker programme for other Mexicans.

Mr Bush's proposals are hard to fault if one sees them only as a pro-immigration step. Yet folly they are. The privileged and exclusive largesse shown towards Mexicans alone strikes at the egalitarian and non-discriminatory principles that have characterised the country's immigration policy for almost four decades.

The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 explicitly introduced the principle of equal access to immigration admission by abolishing the national origins formula that was introduced in 1921. By 1978 the last vestiges of differential geographic treatment in the form of different annual ceilings for immigrants from the different hemispheres had been removed. These adjustments were made despite specific objections that special consideration should be made for contiguous countries, particularly Mexico.

The 1965 provisions are the reason we see, among legal immigrants in the US, a multitude of "exotic" ethnicities and a profusion of colour and religion that would have been unthinkable in an earlier era.

Since 1965, therefore, any immigration measure of importance, built on explicit discrimination among potential immigrants, has been considered repugnant to the principle of non-discrimination. Indeed, the last amnesty in 1986 under Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior was non- discriminatory (even though two-thirds of the beneficiaries were Mexicans).

Why, then, is Mr Bush proposing the regression on immigration policy? The reasons rest on specious arguments that Mexico makes a "special" claim on the US; and cynical arguments that play to domestic politics.

The principal argument in support of Mexico's special claim is that Mexico is part of the North American Free Trade Agreement. According to this view, immigration is simply part of "deeper integration" that should mimic the preferences on trade. But there are several free trade arrangements without immigration preferences. Does the US plan similar preferences for Israel and Canada, and then for Jordan, Chile, Singapore and Vietnam?

Then again, the Rio Grande is often thought to be the frontier through which virtually all illegal immigrants enter the US; it would thus seem the logical focus of policy.Yet even this perspective is flawed. For some years now, the proportion of illegal immigrants flowing into the US from elsewhere has been greater.

The driving force behind this bizarre for-Mexico-only proposal is none of these. Rather, it is domestic politics and, in particular, the Hispanic vote. Has Mr Bushdecided to write off the growing numbers of Asians and others, many of whom now vote, who will see this as a blatant act of discrimination? Putting politics beforeprinciples is understandable if the principles are unimportant and the political payoffs are likely. That is not the case here.

Jagdish Bhagwati is a professor at Columbia University. He and Arthur Helton are senior fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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