Immigration reform a thorn in side of Democrats

Letter date: 
Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Letter publisher:
Letter author: 
Ruben Navarrette
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SAN DIEGO — After Latino voters helped re-elect President Obama — delivering the battleground states of Nevada and Colorado, and contributing to the victories in Florida and Virginia — a consensus quickly emerged among pundits and political observers that the quid pro quo would include comprehensive immigration reform.

But what does this even mean?

For nativists who fear the Latinizing of the United States, reforming the immigration system means building higher fences and rejecting anything that resembles “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. For the business community and high-tech industry, it means owning up to the fact that there are jobs that Americans either won’t do or can’t do, and making it easier for companies to recruit high-skilled workers from abroad. For those on the far left, it means an expedited pathway to U.S. citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants that would not inconvenience the recipients by making them meet any requirements.

Meanwhile, for the majority of Americans, it means a common-sense combination of three things: A temporary guest-worker program where people could come to the United States for a few years, then go home; stronger and smarter border security that keeps track of who is coming and going, and for what purpose; and a pathway to earned legalization for that portion of the undocumented population that has been here for many years.

When the media talk about the imminent arrival of comprehensive immigration reform, this is what is generally assumed: Supposedly, the tuneup to our immigration system that President George W. Bush first talked about at the White House with Mexican President Vicente Fox in September 2001 is a done deal. We’re told: Democrats want it, and Republicans need it.

The assessment is half right. The Republicans need it. But the Democrats don’t really want it. They’ve never really wanted it. They only say they want it to trick Latinos and immigration reform advocates into voting for them again and again.

Which is why reform probably won’t happen. We’ll have a debate but no solution will emerge from it.

So why don’t Democrats want comprehensive immigration reform? For the same five reasons that Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid teamed up in 2006 and 2007 with the nativist wing of the Republican Party to kill bipartisan bills and, in 2010, helped scuttle the DREAM Act — a mini-legalization program for college students and military.

• Democrats would rather not be known, in subsequent elections, as the “party of amnesty” and solidify their reputation for being dovish on border security. This would not help their chances with white and black voters who feel threatened and want stronger enforcement of immigration laws.

• They want to continue to have a club with which to bludgeon Republicans, and convince Latinos that the GOP is hostile to them and their concerns. This makes campaigning easier, and delivers them votes in crucial states that they haven’t earned.

• They want to please organized labor, which opposes any stab at immigration reform that includes mention of guest workers. That is, any proposal that stands a chance of winning the Republican votes necessary for passage because Democrats are so splintered on the issue.

• They want to avoid a contentious debate that would surely divide the Democratic base by pitting Latinos and immigration reformers against labor unions, African-Americans who feel displaced in the racial pecking order, and those who want to restrict immigration to protect U.S. workers.

• They want to preserve the current system, which works great for Democrats. They don’t do anything to fix the problem, so they don’t get saddled with any of the negative pushback they might get if they took action and Republicans used it against them. The GOP gets the blame for being “obstructionist.” Labor is happy. Latinos are duped. All is good.

Don’t kid yourself. Regardless of the election returns and the turmoil now engulfing the Republican Party, Democrats in Congress have no appetite for comprehensive immigration reform. Now that Latino voters have let out a roar, Democrats simply have to be craftier in fooling these voters into thinking they’re doing their bidding while they continue to do what they want to do.

This is the inescapable paradigm of the immigration debate. Getting outraged at Republicans on Election Day didn’t change it. If you want to change it, try saving some outrage for Democrats.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. writes for the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071. Send email to