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Navarrette: What really bothers immigration foes

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN

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Ruben Navarrette: The Hutchison-Pence proposal reveals what motivates immigration restrictionists.

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Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Immigration restrictionists can be so dishonest.

They've said all along that all they care about is that border security be the first priority of any immigration reform plan and that illegal immigrants not be given amnesty. They insisted that they aren't motivated by racism and that they have no problem with immigrants, if they are here legally.

Now we learn otherwise in light of the opposition to a middle-ground immigration reform plan proposed by two anti-amnesty, pro-border security Republicans: Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

Anti-amnesty Republicans in Congress come in three flavors. There are the opportunists who view the issue as red meat that will inspire GOP voters in November. There are the nativists who are frightened over how Latinos affect the culture and who have taken it on as their crusade to reverse that trend. And there are the pragmatists who are willing to work for a bipartisan agreement that fixes a broken immigration system.

Pence and Hutchison are pragmatists. They came up with this: As the first priority, secure the U.S.-Mexico border. For the first two years after the bill becomes law, the emphasis would be on beefing up the border patrol. Once that happens, it would be up to the president to certify to Congress that the border is secure.

Then we'd move on to goal No. 2: establishment of a guest-worker program that would require millions of illegal immigrants in the United States to return to their home country for a couple of weeks to register at privately run "Ellis Island"-type placement centers, where they would receive temporary work visas that could be renewed every two years for a maximum of 12 years.

At that point, workers convert to a new type of visa. And then, in five years -- or 17 years after enrolling in the program -- we'd move on to goal No. 3 in which workers could apply for U.S. citizenship.

You would think that GOP hard-liners could live with this. You'd be wrong. The Pence-Hutchison plan is under fire. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, criticized it for favoring low-skilled workers and not offering preference to immigrants who speak English.

And, during an interview last week with The San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, flirted with nativism when he said that his concern is that the plan would provide "unlimited immigration from Mexico and Central America."

Now we're getting to the heart of the matter.

The Hutchison-Pence plan forces the anti-amnesty crowd to level finally with the rest of us about what really bothers them. If it is that people are here illegally, or that the border isn't secure, then the plan has that covered. But if it's the fear that Anglo-Saxon culture and the English language are being eroded by Spanish-speaking foreigners, and that the country is going down the tubes because of it -- then this plan doesn't offer much relief.

After all, under it, the immigrants get to be legal, but they also get to stay. For some people, that's the real problem. As far as those people are concerned, the Hutchison-Pence plan doesn't offer much comfort.

What it does offer is something this debate could use more of: clarity.

Ruben Navarrette is an editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read more of his columns at http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/op-ed/navarrette/external link.

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