Ruben Navarrette: The immigration debate’s house of mirrors

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014 - 12:00 am

When the topic is immigration reform, Republicans can be counted on to infuriate.

Before heading for an annual retreat for congressional Republicans, House Speaker John Boehner told reporters that this is the moment to tackle immigration.

“This problem’s been around for at least the last 15 years. It’s been turned into a political football, I think it’s unfair. So I think it’s time to deal with it,” Boehner said. “But how we deal with it is critically important.”

So how did Boehner deal with it? For the most part, badly.

First, the immigration problem has been around for a lot longer than 15 years. It’s been 28 years since President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, the last piece of comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

How did the figure “15 years” get stuck in Boehner’s head? What was happening 14 or 15 years ago? Answer: The 2000 census, which showed that Hispanics accounted for 12.5 percent of the U.S. population. Today, that number is nearly 17 percent. Those changing demographics sparked the modern immigration debate. Boehner unwittingly admitted as much.

Next, at the GOP retreat, Boehner released a list of the six main “standards” that should guide Republicans on reforming the immigration system. More than half are off the mark or half-baked.

In the preamble, there is the absurd claim that immigration laws “are not being enforced.”

Really? With President Barack Obama and the Department of Homeland Security on track to have deported 3.5 million people by the time Obama leaves office, how much more enforcement would Boehner and other Republicans like? Unless, of course, their goal is to remove every single illegal immigrant from the United States – all 11 million – and anything less than that signals a lack of resolve. If so, good luck reaching that goal.

Also, Republicans declare that border security and interior enforcement must come first.

This is right-wing boilerplate. You hear it from those talk-radio hosts who are passionate about an issue they don’t understand. It’s worth the amount of thought they put into it, which is not much. For one thing, we’ll never be able to seal off a 2,000-mile border that goes over mountains, deserts, rivers and private property. We could wait for years for the border to be declared fully secure, with our immigration system continuing to deteriorate all the while.

Besides, Republican leaders don’t appear to have considered the research by U.S.-Mexico border experts such as Douglas Massey, a professor at Princeton. Massey notes that the walls and fences we’ve built on the border in the last 20 years have made it more difficult for undocumented immigrants in the United States to return to Mexico even for a visit because they’re afraid that it will be too difficult to re-enter. So they stay put on this side of the border, where they start families and put down roots.

Finally, some good news. As for what we should do with illegal immigrants who are already here, the Republicans hit the sweet spot by offering what the undocumented really want (legal status) without bothering with what many of them don’t care about (citizenship).

For so-called “dreamers” – young people brought here by their parents – Republicans do even better by offering a path to legal residence and citizenship if they join the military or get a college degree. Sound familiar? It’s the DREAM Act that the majority of Republicans voted against in 2010. Now the GOP leaders are on board.

Or are they? In the house of mirrors known as the immigration debate, things are rarely what they seem. Several right-wing news sites have reported that, according to what rank-and-file Republicans say about what went on at the retreat, Boehner did not appear to be committed to pushing an immigration bill this year. He certainly wasn’t trying to sell one. It sounds like – despite what he is telling the media – he is agnostic on the subject. Not good.

Perhaps this is all just political theater, an attempt by House Republican leaders to fool people and brush off the immigration issue before the midterm elections. This would be disappointing but not surprising.

Republicans have, with a helping hand from the other side of the aisle, made quite a mess of the immigration debate. It could be that they’re not done yet.


Reach Ruben Navarrette at ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

Read more articles by Ruben Navarrette



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