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Commentary: Immigration reform just needs some fresh ideas

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SAN DIEGO -- When battling terrorists, President Bush likes to talk in terms of good versus evil.

What a coincidence. That's the same choice that confronts Republicans as they confront immigration reform.

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In the "good" camp, you'll find those Republicans who aren't afraid to condemn immigrant-bashing. While they acknowledge the right of the United States to protect its borders and don't condone illegal immigration, they aren't reluctant to praise immigrants (past and present) for their work ethic, undying optimism, entrepreneurial spirit and countless contributions to American society and the U.S. economy. For them, America is a welcoming society that it is better off because of the people who come here to build new lives.

One of the good guys is Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee chairman who recently discussed immigration and other issues with a gathering of Republican governors in Carlsbad, Calif.

"Throughout our history," Mehlman told the governors, "there have always been Americans who believed that coming to these shores was a right reserved only for them and their ancestors, but not for others." He mentioned Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge who, in 1905, called for immigration restrictions in part because of the effect that an influx of foreigners was having upon "the quality of our citizenship."

Which brings us to the evildoers. There are those who paint all immigrants with the same broad brush. They flirt with nativism by insisting that the foreign-born are inferior to the native-born. They define immigrants in terms of the three D's: defiant, deficient and disloyal. Like the Know-Nothings, who railed against immigrants in the 19th Century (especially Irish or German Catholics), they foster hostility toward those who are different. For this bunch, America is a private club with a "members only" sign out front.

I know what you're thinking. Legal immigration is one thing, but why is it nativist to take a stand against illegal immigration?

It isn't. It's how you go about taking that stand that matters. It's wrong for some to insist that the immigration debate is all about nativism. But it's just as wrong for others to insist that the debate is totally free of it.

Face it. Sometimes the slipper fits. And, to find examples, you don't have to go back to the early 20th Century.

Not when you have politicians such as Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo. As chairman of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, Tancredo recently sent a letter to House leaders detailing his wish list for what he wants to see in whatever bill the House cobbles together on immigration reform. If his provisions aren't included, Tancredo threatened to offer them as amendments.

I really hope he does. A national discussion of the Tancredo amendments would be quite helpful. For one thing, it would torpedo two central claims of the anti-immigration lobby: that their only beef is with illegal immigrants and that their actions aren't motivated by nativism.

Tancredo is cracking down on legal immigrants by trying to eliminate the visa lottery, green cards for unskilled workers, and the H1-B visa utilized by high-skilled tech workers from countries such as India.

That made me wonder: What do low-skilled Mexican farm workers have in common with high-tech Indian workers? Not much, except the fact that they're both foreign-born.

Further pandering to xenophobes, Tancredo also wants to make English the official language of the United States. That has nothing at all to do with immigration reform, but it does have the potential to divide Americans along ethnic lines.

Mehlman wants no part of it. While he says that illegal immigration should not be tolerated, it's obvious that he considers America's diversity to be a priceless asset.

"We're a better country because of the rich immigrant culture," he told me before his speech to the governors. "One of the things that separates America from European countries is that we're an immigrant nation and they're not."

"You could go to France and never be a French person. You could go to Germany and never be a German. You come to America -- from France, from Germany, from Mexico, from Chile and you're a proud American when you come here. That's a good thing, because we always have fresh blood."

Right again. Immigrants do bring fresh blood. And that's what this country needs. It's what this debate needs -- fresh blood, and fresh perspectives. The old arguments are stale.

Republicans are in a tight spot on immigration reform. How do they get out? It's obvious: Clone Mehlman. Deport Tancredo.

CLARIFICATION -- In a column on former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, I wrote that former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski had accepted bribes. While Rostenkowski was indicted for, among other things, pocketing federal funds and campaign money, he agreed to a plea bargain in which he pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com.

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