SAN DIEGO – Apparently worried about being eclipsed on immigration by Donald Trump’s traveling road show, House Republicans are preparing to stampede into the debate with a bill aimed primarily at strengthening enforcement.
Naturally. Because the stale and one-dimensional “enforcement only” approach has worked so well up to now.
If conservatives in Congress want to wrestle the issue away from Trump, they’ll have to bring their A-game. This isn’t it. What the public is starved for in this debate isn’t toughness or compassion but clarity, honesty, accountability and common sense. House Republicans provide none of those things.
We’ve seen this movie so many times that we’ve memorized the dialogue. For the last 20 years, every time Republicans in Congress have tried to get tough on illegal immigration, they’ve gotten stuck on enforcement and focused only on the border. The way they see it, that’s not just the entry point for immigrants but also the end of the discussion.
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Even so, Republicans only have enough courage to propose easy things like more walls and fences, additional Border Patrol agents, and harsher treatment of those who get deported. They avoid like land mines anything that would punish U.S. citizens who hire illegal immigrants to cut their lawns, care for their kids or clean their homes – a group that presumably includes many of their constituents, supporters and donors.
Yet illegal immigration, like illegal drugs, is a demand-driven phenomenon. It exists because there is a market for it. If you don’t focus on the demand, you might kick up dust and get on television, but you’ll never solve the problem. If any city in America wants to declare itself an “illegal immigrant free zone,” more power to it. Just don’t be surprised if all the immigrants move elsewhere, the economy suffers, and the “illegal immigrant free zone” becomes a “job free zone.” That’s probably why border-security conservatives prefer to talk about how Washington has supposedly let them down. Anything to avoid putting soccer moms in a perp walk. After all, soccer moms vote. And the first rule of politics is: Never hurt someone who can hurt you back.
Republicans throw money at the border the way Democrats fling dollars at social programs, inner-city neighborhoods and public schools. Often with the same poor results.
As recently as 10 years ago, Republicans also wanted to create new guest-worker programs that rely on temporary foreign laborers to do low-skill jobs that Americans won’t do – picking peaches, shucking oysters, tarring roofs, cleaning out horse stalls, etc. But that was before so many conservatives turned themselves inside out, drank the populist Kool-Aid and started arguing that illegal immigration undermines U.S. workers. Now you don’t hear much from them about those guest workers. It’s just as well. Voters would be confused to hear Republicans stick up for U.S. workers one minute, and argue in favor of bringing in low-skilled foreign workers the next.
The furthest we can expect Republicans to go with regard to employers is a phony requirement that those who do the hiring participate in the federal government’s E-Verify program, which is supposed to tell them if a prospective employee is legally eligible to work in the United States. But they’ve rigged that game too, by delaying by three years the implementation of that requirement for agricultural jobs – the sort offered by conservative farmers and ranchers who tend to vote Republican – and by exempting from E-Verify the No. 1 employer of illegal immigrants in this country: the American household.
Impressive. Even politicians who can’t legislate their way out of a paper bag are ninja masters in the art of survival. And, with Congress and immigration, the game is always the same: Look like you’re doing something without making enemies, making waves or making yourself a target.
Back to Trump, the mouthy mogul recently traveled to Laredo, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border to get a good look at the immigration problem – and scrape up more free publicity. P.T. Barnum would be proud.
Still, Trump isn’t as smart as he thinks. Photo-ops aside, he could have saved himself the trip. He could have stayed in New York or, for that matter, visited any city in America. It’s in those places that, outside big-box stores, illegal immigrants wait to be picked up by everyday Americans to do chores that would otherwise go undone.
That’s not politics. That’s real life. And on the immigration issue, one bears little resemblance to the other.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.