By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- On Thursday, senators announced a rather remarkable bipartisan compromise on immigration reform that combines border enforcement, a guest worker program, a path to legalization for illegal immigrants, tougher employer sanctions, and an education/skills-based point system for future immigrants.
The same day, the Census Bureau reported what many Americans already know: The United States is becoming a Hispanic nation. Hispanics are the nation's largest minority with 44.3 million people and they account for almost half the growth in the U.S. population. Meanwhile, since 2000, the white school-age population dropped 4 percent, and the white population shrank in sixteen states.
The stories are connected. Anti-illegal immigration crusaders claim their worries are entirely practical -- tied to border security or the cost of entitlements or the fact that illegal immigrants supposedly depress wages for the low skilled.
(That reminds me. Memo to the low skilled: "Grow up. Stop complaining. And go get more skills. Then you won't have to suffer the humiliation of being driven out of the market by folks with a sixth-grade education who are here illegally and don't even speak English.")
But I digress ...
As someone who has written about immigration for more than 15 years, and heard from hundreds of thousands of readers along the way, I can tell you that most of the anxiety over illegal immigration is cultural. People worry about changing demographics, the encroachment of Spanish, the fear that the country is becoming Hispanic-ized, etc. One sociologist called it "cultural displacement" -- the fear that your children will grow up in a world different than the one you grew up in, with fewer advantages, where they will have to work harder for what they accomplish.
One of the more fearful members of Congress is Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-California. Last year, while campaigning, he told a largely white audience near San Diego that if we don't end illegal immigration, one day our children would live in a world where instead of electing to take Spanish in high school, they'll have to take Spanish. Bilbray now heads the House Immigration Reform Caucus. That's where members of Congress come together at regular meetings and complain about illegal immigration while counting the campaign contributions they collect from businesses back home, many of which undoubtedly profit from hiring illegal immigrants.
Last week, Bilbray popped up on one newscast after another and milked his 15 minutes. He opposes the Senate plan, which he calls -- wait for it -- amnesty. But, like most of the critics, he offers no alternate piece of legislation to solve the problem over which he claims to be worried sick.
The Senate compromise isn't perfect. But it's bold and thoughtful, and it's a start. It also did something that's very significant -- dividing traditional allies and uniting traditional adversaries.
If the deal crumbles, we'll return to the status quo. Illegal immigrants will still come to the United States do jobs that Americans won't do. And employers will still hire them. Nothing will change. No one will be punished or held accountable. There's a word for that. I know -- wait for it: amnesty.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read his column here.
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