Sunday, April 30, 2006

Best Column on Immigration

By Ruben Navarette

As members of Congress wrap up their spring break, many Americans want immigration reform that is both tough and compassionate.

Beef up enforcement, they tell pollsters, but also grant legal status to at least some of the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants already here.

Lawmakers appear ready to deliver along those lines. No surprise there. Whenever Washington turns its attention to immigration reform, say every 20 years or so, we always hear words like “tough” and “compassionate.”

But what we need is an immigration policy that is nuanced and honest.

Nuance has been in short supply in this debate ever since Benjamin Franklin lit into German immigrants around the time of the American Revolution.

Today, you can support increasing the number of Border Patrol agents without supporting amateur hour in the form of the Minutemen. You can support fences along portions of the border without going along with building a 2,000-mile-long wall. You can support converting unauthorized presence in the United States from a civil violation to a criminal offense – an idea that was recently squashed by House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist – without saying it should be a felony rather than a misdemeanor. And you can be alarmed over the cost of providing education and health care to the U.S-born children of illegal immigrants without concluding that the solution is to deprive those children of U.S. citizenship.

On the other side of the great divide, you can sympathize with the plight of illegal immigrants without convincing yourself that they haven't really committed a serious infraction by coming to the United States without the proper documents. You can admire the fact that demonstrators would protest for a cause they believe in and still feel uneasy about the waving of Mexican flags. You can support increased border security and fairer immigration laws without being branded a racist or a xenophobe. And you can oppose the concept of a foreign guest worker program not because it harms the country, or the economic well-being of the native-born, but because it's harmful to the foreign workers themselves.

Honesty has also been awfully scarce in this debate. If we were being honest, Americans would have to admit that illegal immigration is a self-inflicted wound and that the cities and states that find themselves combating an influx of these immigrants also often have booming economies and plenty of work for the undocumented. If we were being honest, we wouldn't bother acting surprised by the fact that there are so many illegal immigrants living in our communities – not when we've been hiring them or turning a blind eye to those who hire them for years. If we were being honest, we would accept that demonstrators are not demanding benefits or asking for handouts, but merely fighting back against what they see as an attack against immigrants and an attempt to make criminals out of hard-working, taxpaying members of society. If we were being honest, we would have to accept that there are, as President Bush says, all sorts of hard and dirty “jobs that Americans won't do” – at any wage – and that this is a sign of achievement and progress and not something to be ashamed of. And if we were being honest, we would have to admit that those U.S. citizens who find themselves competing for jobs with illegal immigrants who can't speak English and have sixth-grade educations – and losing out, at that – should take the hint that the time has come for them to get more education and training.

Never mind tough. Forget compassionate. Congress should ditch the old scripts and stop repeating the familiar sound bites.

What do they have to lose? They're not kidding anyone as it is. Just look at what happened recently in the Senate. Those “tough” Republicans weren't tough enough to propose stiffer fines or jail time or asset forfeiture for businesses and others who hire illegal immigrants, and those “compassionate” Democrats weren't compassionate enough not to sell out Latinos if it meant serving the interests of organized labor.

So what's the point of this charade? Instead of trying to be something they're not to fool their political bases, both parties would be better off coming clean and striving for the two things that, whenever we talk about immigration reform, always seem to get lost in the mix: nuance and honesty.

Then the American people would be wise to do the same.

Navarrette can be reached by e-mail at

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