President Bush has a bold new approach to immigration enforcement: He wants to police the Mexican border with symbolism.

That’s the point of his proposal to send the National Guard to our border with Mexico. This represents Bush’s final, desperate descent into Clintonian sleight of hand. He wants to distract enough of his supporters with the razzle-dazzle of “National Guard to the Border!” headlines that they won’t notice he is pushing through Congress a proposal that essentially legalizes all the population influx from Latin America that has occurred in the past 10 years and any that might occur in the future.

Like President Clinton’s gesture of sending more U.S. troops to Somalia after the “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu, when everyone knew we were really on our way out, Bush’s Guard deployment is a prelude to surrender. The immigrants who have come here in defiance of our laws will get to stay, bring their families and be joined by just as many immigrants in the future – at least if Bush gets his way.

It is with this position that Bush has wrecked his political standing, kicking out from under himself the support of his conservative base. Bush’s National Guard feint is a sign that the White House thinks conservatives are not just disaffected, but credulous. The Guard won’t have any real enforcement duties. It will merely provide logistical backup to the Border Patrol. The Guard’s presence will be temporary, until a proposed doubling of Border Patrol agents takes place. But if the past is any guide, all of those new positions ultimately won’t be funded, once the political heat passes.

Having the National Guard sharpen pencils and fetch coffee for the Border Patrol can’t fix our broken immigration system. It is no substitute for a fence, nor for real interior enforcement that punishes employers for hiring illegal labor. The Bush approach to the latter also relies on symbolism. A 26-state immigration raid garnered extensive press attention last month, but most of the aliens arrested were quickly released again.

There is no sign that the raid was a harbinger of a broader crackdown on the employment of illegals, which is the source of the surge of illegals. This isn’t surprising, since if it were a Bush priority to enforce the immigration laws, there presumably would have been some sign of it prior to the sixth year of his presidency. Like Bartleby the Scrivener, Bush’s position on enforcing these laws has been only a firm, “I’d prefer not to.”

That a president from the country’s law-and-order party has been so blase about both when it comes to immigration presents an obvious opening to the opposition. Shrewder Democrats are picking up on it. A new report from the centrist Democratic group Third Way notes that from 2001 to 2004, border apprehensions declined 31 percent from the last four years of the Clinton administration, and apprehensions within the country dropped 36 percent. There were only 46 convictions for violations of laws against hiring illegals in all of 2004.

Bush’s heart just isn’t in enforcement. Perhaps it’s a tribute to his sincerity that he is so bad at faking it. With his sympathy for the struggle of desperate people coming here for work, his “compassionate conservatism” doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande. And it is reinforced by his chamber-of-commerce conservatism that wants to welcome the world’s huddled masses as long as they will work without complaint on hot roofs for cheap wages.

The Senate bill Bush hopes to help pass would put 12 million illegal aliens on the path to citizenship, double the level of legal immigration from 1 million to 2 million a year and welcome hundreds of thousands of guest workers, according to The Washington Times. Those are the numbers that reflect Bush’s true policy preferences, not the couple of thousand unarmed National Guard troops that he wants to deploy to the border as a political prop.

Rich Lowry is a syndicated columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at: [email protected]