AUSTIN, Texas -- In Texas, where the border is a constant presence in our lives, no one is mistaking President Bush's immigration proposal for a brilliant new departure in immigration policy, or even for a ploy to get Hispanic political support. What we have here is the old bracero program, a guest worker program, and it primarily benefits one group and one group only -- big business. And that would be OK, if other parts of the program totaled up to a net improvement in the current situation. That's what we need to look at and weigh.

            Even by normal standards of partisan journalism, there has been an awful lot of knee-jerk commentary on this proposal by people who don't seem to know how the underground economy works. Some liberals are dismissing the Bush proposal as nothing but politics, a way to get brownie points with Hispanics when it has no chance of going anywhere in Congress. Seems to me we owe Bush the benefit of the doubt on this, and it may not even be smart politically: The program would grant temporary legal status to about 8 million immigrants, but it's not going to make the 9 million Americans who are out of work happy, and some of them vote.

            The proposal has merit as a way to deal with future immigrants, said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union. "If I'm sitting in Mexico thinking about coming north for a job, this makes sense to me. But if I'm already here, it makes no sense. This is a way to deal with future flows of immigration, but it means the (8 million to) 11 million already here are never going to be legalized. These are people who have been here 15, 20 years, paying taxes, having children part of the community. They're talking about apples and oranges."

            Longtime workers would not automatically be put on the path to obtaining citizenship or even permanent resident status. They would further logjam a system that already takes up to 10 years. Bush, who proposes to cut domestic spending again this year, made no mention of how to pay for the new program.

            Realistically, the bureaucratic hassles of getting 8 million to 11 million people biometric cards and then reviewing them in three years makes the whole idea silly. Try a cost estimate on that. From the undocumented worker's point of view, the proposal actually makes things worse by making their legal status dependent on their employers: If the temporary worker quits or gets fired, he is subject to deportation. This makes the workers incredibly vulnerable to exploitation, effectively indentured servants, as Susan Martin, an immigration expert at Georgetown University, put it. The possibilities for abuse in that situation are horrifying. Plus, the temporary cards offer no way to a more regular status.

            But a positive initiative in the proposal would allow guest workers to take the payments they have made to Social Security and IRAs back to Mexico with them. This would fix, at least for the guest workers, the ugly situation we have now where undocumented workers pay into Social Security but never get any benefits from it. That really is just theft, since Social Security payments are taken from pay they have earned. That situation could also be fixed by a totalization agreement, which we have with other countries around the world and need with Mexico. If a Mexican citizen has earned enough here to qualify for Social Security benefits, they should be sent to him in Mexico.

            Another obvious flaw in the program is that companies seeking guest workers have to "prove" that the jobs they offer will not be taken by American citizens. Think about what that would actually take. The Bush proposal is that the jobs be put on a government website -- if there are no takers here, you get to import a Mexican worker. You really have to wonder who Bush thinks is on the Internet.

            The most moving part of Bush's speech was this passage: "We see millions of hardworking men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive undocumented economy. ... Decent, hardworking people will now be protected by labor laws with the right to change jobs, earn fair wages and enjoy the same working conditions that the law requires for American workers."

            It's always hard to know if Bush doesn't know or he doesn't care, but under his administration, Americans themselves are less and less protected by labor laws, including fair wage laws and working conditions, because Bush keeps cutting the enforcement staff at the Department of Labor and OSHA.

            Bush also said in the future enforcement would be stepped up against companies that hire illegal workers. This old song has played too many times. The way it works, as in the recent case with Wal-Mart, is the feds sweep in, arrest the minimum wage workers, put them in jail and threaten them with deportation. Executives of Wal-Mart do not get arrested.

            To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.