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Immigration debate must cross over from rhetoric to reality

SAN DIEGO – Washington is getting ready to lead the way down a dark and dead-end road.

Now that the White House has mangled the rollout of Obamacare and Congress has bungled the politics of the government shutdown, those at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are likely to bring the same level of skill and sensitivity to the explosive debate over immigration reform. President Obama delivered a speech on Thursday rebooting the debate and daring Congress to pass “common-sense immigration reform.”

This would be the same sort of reform that Obama helped to thwart in 2006 while he was a senator. And it is the same sort of reform he did nothing to achieve in his first term as president. And this would be the kind of reform his administration has pushed further onto the horizon with heavy-handed enforcement policies that deported nearly 2 million people and divided scores of families.

Meanwhile, Speaker John Boehner expressed optimism last week that the Republican-controlled House could get something done on the issue by the end of the year. Boehner is dreaming. It will take that long for lawmakers to get through the first round of name-calling.

Besides, what Republicans have in mind isn’t a full-out amnesty for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States but at most a pathway to legal status without citizenship, or legal status with citizenship but only for young people who were brought to the United States as children.

That’s not going anywhere with Democrats, who are counting on the fact that citizens can vote and non-citizens can’t.

So Washington wants to get back to immigration. All I can say is: Please don’t. Americans have had enough.

Every time those who actually care about immigration reform delve back into this debate, they wind up with nothing but bruised hearts, broken promises and brazen dishonesty.

Lawmakers in both parties – most of whom don’t care about this issue and care even less about what happens to immigrants – will ultimately create more animosity, cynicism and false hope. Hundreds of thousands of protesters on both sides will take to the streets, pitting groups against each other.

Before you know it, we’ll get distracted and wind up yelling at one another about sideshow issues such as whether protesters should wave the Mexican flag or whether journalists should use the phrase “illegal immigrant.”

Spare me. It might be worth it to go through this exercise if the advocates who are leading the charge in Washington were pursuing something larger than their own self-interest. Most aren’t. They’re dealing in bad faith and spend most of their time trying to fool the people whose cause they supposedly champion.

Immigration advocacy has become a big business, with New York-based foundations giving tens of millions of dollars to the host of Washington-based organizations that are profiting from this debate.

Some of the wiser grass-roots activists who are in this fight for real – people like Alfredo Gutierrez, the former majority leader of the Arizona Senate, who has spent the last few years battling Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the Arizona immigration law, and groups like and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network – refer to the Washington groups as the “Immigration Non-Profit Industrial Complex.”

You know what lifted the veil on this masquerade? It was the DREAM 9, a group of defiant young people who found themselves back in Mexico because they either “self-deported” for more opportunity or were physically removed by the Obama administration despite the president’s insistence to Spanish-language media that he isn’t deporting DREAMers.

The nine activists crossed the border at Nogales, Ariz., and were quickly apprehended by U.S. immigration officials.

What did those Washington groups say in defense of the DREAM 9? Nothing. In fact, a top official with one of these groups – the American Immigration Lawyers Association – went on the attack, incensed that the border-crossers had embarrassed an administration that AILA had spent five years cozying up to. Eventually, the activists were released.

Along the way, those at the grass roots realized they were on their own. They learned to follow the money, to trust no one, and to demand results and not settle for rhetoric. Now, as Congress and the White House restart the immigration debate, these activists should keep those lessons in mind.