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Commentary: Border security talk a bluff for bill's critics

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- It's baaaack. Comprehensive immigration reform isn't dead after all, and thank goodness for that.

Granted, it did look a bit peaked after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cut off debate a couple of weeks ago on a bipartisan bill in an apparent bid to please organized labor, which opposes any compromise that includes guest workers.

Now Reid plans to bring the legislation back to the floor of the Senate.

And, at least we have a clearer understanding of what's really motivating those who want to kill the proposal -- and what isn't. The critics like to say the Senate has come up with a bad bill. But actually it's the critics who have been acting in bad faith.

They've claimed that the first priority should be border enforcement and that any discussion of what to do with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States should wait until after the borders are secured. They've called for more fencing, more Border Patrol agents and more prosecutions of those who employ illegal immigrants. Right-wing bloggers, columnists and radio talk-show hosts are stuck on the same tune: enforcement first.

For the record, that approach is utter nonsense. You can't have real and honest immigration reform unless you confront the thorny question of what to do with illegal immigrants already here. You can't just ignore them and hope they "self-deport."

Besides, whenever we focus exclusively on the border, we reinforce the assumption that the illegal immigration crisis can only be solved there, when the truth is that this battle is being fought every day in every corner of the country -- from the heartland to the hinterland -- and that is where it will be won or lost.

This is Congress we're talking about. If it does enforcement-only, it'll never get to Part II. Look at what happened in 1996, when lawmakers went for the low-hanging fruit of enforcement by passing the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. The law increased the ranks of the Border Patrol and increased penalties for violations of immigration law.

And what happened? The illegal immigrant population grew from about 8 million then to 12 million now. What a good plan. I can see why some folks want to travel that road again. In fact, the author of that failed bill -- Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has joined with Rep. Peter King, R-New York, to propose a new enforcement-only bill in the House of the Representatives.

Swell. What's the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Still, the "enforcement first" message apparently got through to President Bush, who helped breathe new life into the compromise bill. Last week, in an attempt to win over the votes of Senate conservatives, Bush pledged support for an additional $4.4 billion for border security and work-site enforcement.

You'd think that would make the critics happy. Nope. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, told CNN's "Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer" that the new funding amounted to a "terrible trade" because border security "should be a given." And Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he didn't think the funding is "going to satisfy the concerns about whether we are really going to build a workable system."

Wrong, senator. What the critics have really been worried about all along is giving legal status to illegal immigrants and whether it might hasten that which terrifies many Americans: the Latinization of the United States. The talk about border security was just a bluff, and the president called it.

Time to put our cards on the table. Some people will never be happy. So Congress needs to stop wasting time trying to make them happy and start working toward fixing a broken system. The Senate can lead the way by passing this bill and moving the process forward. Then the House needs to do its part by rejecting the enforcement-only approach in favor of something that actually stands a chance of working -- something, uh, comprehensive.

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.external link

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.


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Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Congress needs to stop wasting time trying to make everyone happy and start working toward fixing a broken system.

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