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Immigration debate a hall of mirrors


SAN DIEGO – Fact: Immigration reform is dead for the rest of this year, and probably for years to come.

Fiction: It died because Republicans don’t like immigrants and thus have no interest in giving those who are undocumented a path to citizenship. In response, Democrats, who love immigrants and want to provide them with a better life, are valiantly trying to revive reform efforts.

This is one narrative being spun by the East Coast media, which are still coming up short in understanding the immigration debate because many reporters, producers and columnists make the mistake of treating it like just another political argument.

It isn’t. This debate is a hall of mirrors where things are not what they appear. No one wants to talk about immigration for what it really is: an economic tug of war between employers who tend to vote Republican and want workers to do jobs that Americans consider beneath them, and blue-collar workers who vote Democrat and who are convinced immigrants take jobs, undercut unions and lower wages.

There is much denial.

Americans refuse to admit they’ve raised at least two generations of young people who think they’re entitled to skip menial work – which invites illegal immigrants to take these jobs.

Liberals won’t acknowledge that employers aren’t the problem, and that even good-paying jobs are hard to fill if they’re grueling, dirty or hazardous.

Conservatives won’t concede that, for the last decade, they’ve handed their end of the debate over to alarmists who fret about demographic shifts and cultural changes.

Even more galling is the dishonesty. You have to forget what politicians say and watch what they do. Elected officials spend most of their time fooling their own constituents.

Republicans pretend to be stricter than they really are to woo nativists; Democrats pretend to be more compassionate than they really are to placate Latinos.

Neither party really wants to do anything on immigration, because it would pit their constituencies against one another.

Democrats would have to referee the fight between blue-collar workers who want to get rid of illegal immigrants and Latinos who want to welcome them; Republicans would have to manage tensions between business interests that want more immigrants and the nativists who think we already have more than enough. So we can’t really be sure that Republicans are solely responsible for the death of immigration reform, or that Democrats really want to bring it back to life.

It’s true that two Republicans – John Carter and Sam Johnson, both of Texas – recently left the bipartisan Gang of Seven reform coalition in the House, saying they don’t trust the Obama administration or believe it is seriously committed to immigration reform.

You don’t say? The fact that the president didn’t get around to even having the conversation until his second term and has deported nearly 2 million illegal immigrants to date, should have tipped them off.

It’s true that House Democrats are suddenly talking about putting out their own immigration reform bills.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Xavier Becerra of California may introduce a version of the Senate immigration bill that combined enforcement with a path to citizenship. And Reps. Filemon Vela of Texas and Raul Grijalva of Arizona have proposed a bill to continue talks on immigration reform before the end of the year.

But it’s hard to believe that what motivates Democrats is a desire to fix a broken system.

If that were true, Democrats would have pulled the trigger on immigration reform when they controlled both houses of Congress from 2007 to 2011. Instead, they kept it off the agenda.

Now, Democrats just want to tweak Republicans. They also want Latinos and other reform proponents to think they’re still fighting. Just not very hard.

Notice how when Democrats really care about issues such as raising the minimum wage, reforming health care, ensuring equal pay for women, offering school districts an out from accountability measures, and other liberal causes, it gets done – sometimes without a single Republican vote.

And yet, on immigration, at the first sign of resistance from the GOP, the Democrats retreat.

Why, if I didn’t know better, I would think that Democrats don’t really want to bother with immigration reform – other than as an instrument to torture Republicans. Not that some in the GOP don’t deserve this sort of treatment.

E-mail: ruben@rubennavarrette.com. Copyright, The Washington Post Writers Group.



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