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In the end, though, it's unlikely that Bush will ever consummate his flirtation with the anti-immigrant right. It's too big a departure from his history, and too many Big Business G.O.P. donors need their cheap labor. "Bush decided to give these guys"--the immigration hard-liners--"their rhetorical pound of flesh," says a Republican official close to the White House. "In return, he wants a comprehensive bill, which is what he has always wanted. He's just going to lead with a lot of noise about border security."
Intraparty pressure from corporate donors on the issue is intense. TIME surveyed business leaders in California, Colorado, Florida and Minnesota; nearly all said the conservative position on immigration ignores the reality that there is virtually no labor market for physically demanding, low-wage jobs in agriculture, construction and hospitality. "In fact, we have to compete for [illegal workers] now," says Jay Taylor, president of Taylor & Fulton Farms, a tomato concern based in Palmetto, Fla. "It used to be migrant workers were just vegetable-and-fruit pickers or housekeepers. But look at the incredible housing boom we've had in Florida in recent years. Now they're being sought out by roofing contractors, lawn-maintenance companies, the hotel and restaurant industry. The native-born American worker stopped coming to us several generations ago."
The Senate is considering an alternative to the McCain-Kennedy bill that tries to balance such business concerns with conservatives' priorities. In a nutshell, that bill would require illegal aliens to go home. Not immediately--they could continue on their jobs for as long as five years--but then they would have to go back to their homelands and, if they want to return to the U.S., file an application. "There's growing national consensus that in a post-9/11 world, we simply have to know who's coming into our country and why they're here," says Senator John Cornyn, who is sponsoring the bill with Jon Kyl of Arizona.
The U.S. has had to learn--repeatedly, with every immigrant wave--that it cannot immure itself behind a wall of immigration restrictions and cultural purity. But how do we do that while ensuring that Mohammed Atta isn't buying plane tickets online at Kinko's? Those distinctions are difficult to draw, and Bush may not have the eloquence or the political juice to figure out how to finesse them. Still, there is nothing more appropriate for a politician trying to redefine himself than to be asked to define what his country is.