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Tackle immigration reform in 2010

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
  • Ruben Navarrette: Congress and Obama say they will work on immigration reform in 2010
  • He says it's a volatile issue, but they must resist political impulse to duck it again
  • Navarrette: Interest groups need to face debate honestly, shun ugliness
  • Americans should remember own immigrant roots, Navarrette says

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 Read his column here.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- It's time again for New Year's resolutions, especially if Congress and the White House really plan to reopen the explosive immigration debate in 2010. Whether or not they do depends on which part of the political carnival you're looking at.

This week, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Obama administration is discreetly laying the groundwork to tackle immigration reform early next year.

According to the article, senior White House aides have privately assured Latino immigration activists that President Obama will throw his support behind legislation in Congress to provide a path to earned legalization for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States.

But last week, the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill reported that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, has been offering some private assurances of her own. Pelosi, the article says, has told fellow Democrats not to worry about having to address immigration reform until the Senate acts first.

By passing the buck to "the world's greatest deliberative body," Pelosi is probably hoping that deliberation will become dithering and delay. Then the House can duck the volatile issue altogether. It's the politics of self-preservation. Concerned that voters would react negatively to any talk of legalizing millions of illegal immigrants, Pelosi is obviously trying to preserve her job by protecting vulnerable Democrats.

Nonetheless, let's assume that, whether Pelosi wants it to or not, the immigration debate is poised for a comeback in 2010. Surely, we can all -- Republicans and Democrats, natives and immigrants -- improve on our performance from the last time this issue was on the agenda, back in 2005-2007.

In 2008, neither Obama nor GOP presidential hopeful John McCain broached the topic. There was no chance to draw contrasts since both supported comprehensive reform over the "enforcement only" approach. And each worried that an honest discussion would alienate part of their base -- organized labor for Obama, law-and-order conservatives for McCain.

In 2009, despite promising Latino groups that he'd tackle the issue of immigration reform in his first year in office, Obama pushed back the deadline when he discovered that he had other things to do. Instead, the president focused on issues that he really cares about -- education, global warming, and health care.

In 2010, let's resolve that the debate not be so polarized, and that the participants move off their "all or nothing" stance and become more willing to compromise. Both sides have to know going in that they're not going to get everything they want, but as they focus on the few things they absolutely can't live without and surrender the rest, they may be able to make a deal.

Let's resolve that we'll have an honest discussion this time around, one that accepts the hard facts of life about illegal immigration -- that it's a self-inflicted wound -- that American communities bring it upon themselves when parents raise young people who shun the dirty and distasteful jobs and when employers respond by hiring illegal immigrants to do them.

Let's resolve that, this time, we'll get rid of the ugliness and have zero tolerance for the racism, nativism and xenophobia which have, unfortunately, been ingredients in this stew since Benjamin Franklin ignorantly popped off about German immigrants in the late 18th century.

And let's resolve that we won't just surround ourselves with people who agree with us so we can reaffirm what we already think and discount other points of view. This time, let's listen to the other side, challenge what we believe in, and try to understand where our opponents are coming from -- if only to gain a better understanding of why we believe as we do.

Democrats need to resolve to stand up to their benefactors in organized labor who refused to go along with a guest worker plan because, they claim from their fantasy world, U.S. workers would love to pick peaches, milk cows, clean horse stalls, pick the meat out of crab shells, or do any other kind of unpleasant job if only immigrants hadn't gotten to the bottom of the barrel first.

Meanwhile, Republicans need to resolve to -- as Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, advised in a speech to a Latino group in 2007 -- "tell the bigots to shut up" and resist the temptation to make the entire debate about preserving culture, language and current demographics by finding new and innovative ways to keep out one ethnic group or another.

It could help break the ice if immigrants resolved to be more like Americans by assimilating, learning English, obeying the law, adopting customs, and jumping through all the necessary hoops to become U.S. citizens, register to vote, and uphold their civic responsibilities.

While we're at it, Americans should resolve to be more like immigrants by shedding their sense of entitlement, rediscovering a work ethic, and showing empathy for those who -- whether we like to admit or not -- bear a striking resemblance to the immigrant ancestors staring back at us from black-and-white photos in the family album.

Remember those photos. We owe it to the memories of those brave souls to finally get this debate right. This year, let's resolve to make it so.

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