The Grinch Who Stole Immigration Reform

The Grinch Who Stole Immigration Reform

By Ruben Navarrette - December 23, 2009

SAN DIEGO -- Just in time for Christmas, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has given Latino voters a valuable gift: clarity.

So much of politics is masked in smoke and mirrors. If you convince Latino constituents that the other party is out to get them, you'll become their BAF -- best amigo forever. And so it is that most Latinos I know have been led to believe that on immigration reform, Republicans are inherently bad and Democrats are intrinsically good. And, they tell me, any day now, President Obama and congressional Democrats will discover their backbones and deliver what they've promised when pandering to Hispanic groups: comprehensive immigration reform that allows illegal immigrants to work their way to legal status, even if it means jumping through more hoops than Ringling Bros.

How gullible can you get? Democrats only care about one thing, and it's the same thing that Republicans care about: re-election. And any controversial issue that might get in the way -- gay marriage, "don't ask, don't tell," and, yes, illegal immigration -- usually gets shoved far back in the cupboard.

Still, who am I to tell my fellow Latinos that there's no Santa Claus? I figured I'd let things play out and they'd learn soon enough that the Democrats were getting ready to sell them out.

Now Pelosi has tipped her hand. Last week, according to the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill, she privately assured fellow representatives not to worry about having to address immigration reform and other controversial issues until the Senate acts first. Concerned that voters will react negatively to a proposal to legalize millions of illegal immigrants, Pelosi is promising to protect vulnerable members' seats.

Actually, change that to "protect Pelosi's job." After all, if Democrats lose the majority in the 2010 election, she'll lose her speakership. No more flights on government planes. Once reduced to backbencher, Pelosi might have to do the unthinkable -- fly commercial.

And what's this nonsense about waiting for the Senate to act? You might think this is about seeking cover from the upper chamber. Not so. If House Democrats feel vulnerable and think that the immigration debate could cost them support back home, then they're going to avoid it like H1N1 whether the Senate has taken action or not.

What Pelosi is counting on is that by passing the buck to "the world's greatest deliberative body," the deliberation will turn into dithering, delay and derailment. Then the House can skirt the issue that Rahm Emanuel, former Pelosi lieutenant and current White House chief of staff, has called "the third rail of American politics." You touch it, you die.

Pelosi is throwing cold water on the prospects for immigration reform just as Rep. Luis Gutierrez has introduced an immigration bill that, while not perfect, at least starts the conversation. As Gutierrez was trying to get the legislation on its feet, Pelosi cut it off at the knees. That's not a good look.

The Hill quoted Rep. Gerry Connolly, president of the freshman class of representatives, as being in agreement with Pelosi's abdication of leadership. Connolly said that "freshmen, particularly, are not enamored of the idea of being asked to walk the plank" on a controversial issue such as immigration reform.

That freshman had better bone up on his studies before midterms. What Connolly calls walking the plank, I call Democrats having to walk it like they talk it. And if they don't have the courage to do this, at least stop trying to throw Latinos off the scent by making it seem as if the powerless and hapless GOP is to blame for derailing comprehensive immigration reform. It isn't. Not this time. This debacle is on the Democrats.

In fact, here's my theory. The real reason Democrats are stalling is because, on this hot-button issue, they're not comfortable being in power. They know they're destined to lose seats in Congress in next year's elections. And when they do, and a few prominent Republicans become the new faces of the opposition, Democrats will accuse them of killing immigration reform.

It's brilliant and cynical and slimy. But it only works if Latinos get lost in the smoke and mirrors. And that depends on whether a blindly loyal Democratic constituency intends to spend Christmas Eve waiting for Santa Claus to come down the chimney.

Copyright 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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Ruben Navarrette

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