AWOL on Immigration

AWOL on Immigration

By Ruben Navarrette - April 13, 2011

SAN DIEGO -- With President Obama and the Democrats stuck in reactive mode, Republicans are driving most of the serious discussions in Washington.

This includes the debate over the budget, more spending cuts, and whether to raise the federal debt limit. But it also includes the recurring discussion about how to enforce the nation's immigration laws and what to do with those who break them.

Conservatives often castigate Democrats for making people lazy and dependent on government giveaways as a way of maintaining control over them. They would say that the only reason congressional Democrats even talk about legalizing undocumented immigrants is to eventually provide them government benefits and turn them into what you might call indentured voters.

Let's be clear: Democrats and the White House aren't talking much about immigration reform to begin with. In fact, they couldn't care less about it. If Democrats really had immigration reform as a policy priority, they would have done something about it during the four years they controlled both houses of Congress. They avoid the issue not just because of the backlash from those who oppose "amnesty" but because the very debate splits the Democratic coalition. So, the only thing they're talking about now is the same thing that interests Republicans -- immigration enforcement.

Having said this, conservatives have a point that social programs and other entitlements have left some Americans -- especially those in their teens, 20s and 30s -- lazy and unproductive. And that's something for Republicans to keep in mind when they talk about illegal immigration. After all, who do you think is passing up the jobs that wind up being done by illegal immigrants? In many cases, it is Americans who have lost their work ethic and feel entitled to have others do their chores for them. So while conservatives like to blame this sense of entitlement for the continued growth of the welfare state, they should also be honest enough to name it as a contributing factor to the spread of illegal immigration.

Meanwhile, Democrats have seized on the budget battle as an opportunity to draw a sharp contrast with Republicans. While they were willing to make about $38 billion in spending cuts, Democrats also held the line and resisted deeper cuts in defense of their priorities. They put a stake in the ground and protected Planned Parenthood and NPR from Republican efforts to defund both. They talked about the need to preserve the safety net for the poor and downtrodden.

Democrats did all this, they said, because these were battles worth having. Instead of trying to emulate Republicans, Democrats fought them head-on. They weren't always right in the budget negotiations; for instance, they failed to confront the unsustainability of the current spending path. But, at least Democrats were principled and courageous in fighting what they considered a wrongheaded approach by the other side.

If only Americans could say the same thing about the Democrats' approach to the immigration debate. There, the left has no courage or, for that matter, much originality. Their stance on enforcement -- deportation, more Border Patrol agents, addition surveillance equipment, etc. -- mirrors what the Republicans have done. In some cases, it actually exceeds.

You can see why. Democrats are in a pickle. They want to appeal to Hispanics, who support a comprehensive approach that includes earned legal status for the undocumented. But Democrats cannot afford to be seen as wimps on the issue or they'll lose the votes of non-Hispanics. So they overcompensate.

President Clinton fell into this trap in 1994 when he launched Operation Gatekeeper near San Diego to help secure the California-Mexico border. Clinton did it again two years later when he signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which made it easier for state and local police officers to enforce federal immigration law and harder for illegal immigrants to fight their deportation.

And now, President Obama is playing the same game. He signed a $600 million border enforcement bill, and his administration deported nearly 800,000 illegal immigrants in its first two years.

In the current budget debate, Americans benefit from the fact that there are two distinct parties articulating opposing views and defending different principles. Too bad they can't say that about the debate over setting the nation's immigration policy.

Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

Ruben Navarrette

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