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Commentary: Republicans need to get serious about immigration

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SAN DIEGO -- So now we know that, when the subject is immigration, Republicans can't take a joke.

Just look at what happened with the moat. During his immigration speech in El Paso, President Obama insisted that his administration has answered the concerns of those who want tighter border security.

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"They wanted more agents at the border," Obama said. "They wanted a fence. ... But even though we've answered these concerns, I've got to say I suspect there are still going to be some who are trying to move the goal posts on us one more time. ... Maybe they'll need a moat. Maybe they want alligators in the moat."

That's the line that caught the attention of many conservative commentators on talk radio and cable TV. They were offended that Obama would trivialize the issue of border security with talk of moats and alligators.

The president wasn't the first to use this gag. Years ago, I heard comedian George Lopez dare restrictionists to dig a moat on the U.S.-Mexico border and fill it with alligators. In two weeks, Lopez quipped, you'd have people selling belts and wallets.

I don't understand why Republicans had such trouble with the alligator joke. Their whole approach to the immigration issue is a joke. While Democrats aren't serious in their commitment to immigration reform, many Republicans aren't even capable of having a serious discussion of the issue.

Their arguments don't make sense. One minute, they're pandering to the nationalists in their party by telling us that a country like Mexico is a dark and dysfunctional place. The next, they're telling us that, if we create a hostile environment on this side of the border, illegal immigrants will "self-deport" to said dark and dysfunctional place.

Too bad this isn't your father's Republican Party, which saw problems and offered solutions instead of sound bites. In a 1980 GOP presidential debate, both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush agreed on the need to provide "amnesty" to illegal immigrants. And, when Reagan was elected president, that's just what he did for more than 3 million of the undocumented when he signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The lead sponsor of that historic bill was another Republican, Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming.

The immigration restrictionists like to say that IRCA failed because it didn't stop illegal immigration. What the critics don't say is that there is only one reason illegal immigrants kept coming to the United States: U.S. employers -- most notably, overscheduled and short-handed American households -- kept hiring them.

And when Congress had the chance to do something about that, the GOP refused. In 1996, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, proposed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, a Draconian piece of legislation that made it easier to deport illegal immigrants and harder to re-enter the country legally. The bill was an "enforcement only" measure. But, since it steered clear of cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, it was more like "enforcement-lite." Not surprisingly, even after the law was adopted, illegal immigrants kept coming because -- wait for it -- employers kept hiring them.

Republicans love to talk tough about securing the border, deporting illegal immigrants, encouraging legal immigrants to learn English and otherwise assimilate, etc. But when it comes to stopping the magnet for illegal immigration by cracking down on employers, they go soft. This might have something to do with campaign contributions and where they come from, and an old saying about not biting the hand that feeds you.

Now, Obama has laid a trap for Republicans by reopening the immigration debate. But no one says the GOP has to fall into it. Republicans can't avoid the debate, but they can make themselves less of a target by avoiding the six mistakes they always make whenever immigration comes up: proposing simple solutions to a complicated problem; casting the debate as a battle between "us" and "them" and putting Latinos in the "them" camp; pandering to racism and nativism to rev up the base; refusing to admit that most Americans won't do the jobs that illegal immigrants do; thinking they can stop illegal immigration with nothing more than fencing and more border patrol agents; and getting distracted by "sideshow" issues like declaring English the national language or overriding the 14th Amendment by denying citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.

Ready or not, we're about to re-enter the immigration battle. It's time for Republicans to get serious.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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