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Commentary: Immigration reform takes courage

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette: Obama administration giving immigration new attention.
  • He says reform should focus on borders, legal immigrants and 12 million illegals
  • He says last immigration reform effort was nixed by bad calls on left and right
  • Navarrette: Hispanics will back politicians who show courage on immigration
By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to CNN.com.

Ruben Navarrette says the left and right need to be flexible to achieve immigration reform.

Ruben Navarrette says the left and right need to be flexible to achieve immigration reform.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- The advocates of comprehensive immigration reform have a message for their opponents: "Game on!"

They're right. For the first six months of the Obama administration, immigration reform was on the back burner. But Thursday, the issue began making its way to the front of the stove when President Obama met with congressional leaders of both parties to plan a major piece of legislation.

After the meeting, Obama told reporters, "After all the overheated rhetoric and the occasional demagoguery on all sides around this issue, we've got a responsible set of leaders sitting around the table who want to actively get something done and not put it off until a year, two years, three years, five years from now, but to start working on this thing right now."

One of those in the room was New York Sen. Chuck Schumer. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, he is expected to write the bill which could be unveiled this fall.

Given what Schumer said last week at a gathering sponsored by the Migration Policy Institute, his legislation will almost certainly combine enhanced border enforcement and earned legalization for undocumented immigrants in the United States. Before the sausage is complete, however, we might also see a requirement that all workers carry a tamper-proof identification card and new criteria for admitting legal immigrants.

As we go along, it would be nice if lawmakers and advocacy groups avoided wandering off into ancillary issues that divide and distract. For liberals, that means not interfering with workplace raids and other enforcement measures they find unpleasant. For conservatives, it means not flirting with cultural hot buttons like declaring English the national language.

You'll recall that the last time Congress tried to fix our broken immigration system -- in 2007 -- it only succeeded in showing the country that our legislative system is also broken. Pro-business Republicans wanted tighter borders and a new plan to import hundreds of thousands of guest workers but wouldn't accept a new round of employer sanctions because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce abhors the idea.

Pro-labor Democrats wanted earned legal status for illegal immigrants (read future Democratic voters) and a speedier pathway for people to become U.S. citizens, but wouldn't go along with guest workers because unions think they undermine U.S. workers.

Indeed, given Schumer's remarks, one thing we're not likely to see in the new bill is any mention of guest workers. That is a mistake since Republicans have said they won't support any bill that doesn't allow businesses to import a temporary workforce -- something many Americans find unpopular in a recession because they live under the delusion that U.S.-born twentysomethings are just itching to do the hard and dirty jobs that foreign workers typically do.

Meanwhile, both parties still have to deal with the insanity that runs in the family. Republicans will have to finally stand up to nativists who fear change, and Democrats will have to do the same with unionists who fear competition. And both parties will have to confront the deniers; some left-wingers deny that they secretly favor open borders while some right-wingers still deny that racism is part of their movement.

This time around, congressional leaders would be wise to avoid those pitfalls and focus on solving the three big problems: porous borders; the difficulty in immigrating legally; and the fact that 12 million illegal immigrants are in a state of suspended animation where they work hard, pay taxes, buy homes, and join the PTA, but never achieve full civic participation and the responsibilities that come with it.

No one knows whether the bill could be approved this year. If the debate carries over until 2010, midterm elections could put the issue off until 2011 -- which could still work out well for the White House because achieving immigration reform would play well with Hispanics in Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.

And why is that? Most of the elite media -- given the embarrassing shortage of Hispanic journalists -- doesn't have a clue about Hispanic voters. Conventional wisdom is that the reason Hispanics care about immigration reform -- even though polls show they consider it less important than education, the economy and health care -- is because supposedly they all have friends and relatives who are in the United States illegally.

How delightfully condescending. Allow me: Hispanics care about immigration reform because the issue represents, for U.S. politicians, a gut-check moment, a test of political courage. They know about the pressure that is brought to bear on elected officials in both parties by Americans who worry about how illegal immigrants change our culture and our language -- although apparently not enough to stop hiring them.

Hispanics don't condone illegal immigration, but nor they appreciate illegal immigrants being turned into scapegoats for all the ills of society. Above all, they have an interest in knowing whether the leaders they vote for are going to stand by their promises or wilt under pressure.

And if officials stand up for them, Hispanics are sure to return the favor. Obama got about 66 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2008, and if he delivers on immigration reform -- in addition to nominating the first Latina to the Supreme Court -- that figure could soar to 75 percent in 2012. With demographics being what they are, that would probably mean curtains for the Republican nominee -- no matter who it is.

In that regard, you could say the battle for the Hispanic vote in the 2012 presidential election is now under way.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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