Let's Hold a Real Immigration Debate

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For several weeks, political observers have said that it will be tough to reconcile the enforcement-only immigration reform bill passed by the House of Representatives with the more comprehensive reform bill approved by the Senate. But the battle got even messier this week, as Republicans decided to hold public field hearings. The first, organized by House Republicans, took place Wednesday at a Border Patrol station near San Diego. Meanwhile, Republican Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter held his own hearings Wednesday in Philadelphia.

Clearly, the objective was to build support for the position of whoever was organizing each event, while taking potshots at any other approach. One House Republican admitted as much beforehand. Rep. Brian Bilbray, a California Republican, was part of the congressional panel at the San Diego event. In an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Bilbray called the House hearings "a good way to highlight the problems with the Senate bill."

But as difficult as it may be to bring together the House and Senate, Congress should be grateful it doesn't have to do something really tough like, say, reconcile the contradictions of average Americans on immigration.

There's the contradiction of how we insist we're against illegal immigration, and yet can't stop hiring illegal immigrants. And that's not just to do "jobs that Americans won't do," but the jobs that make the lives of average Americans easier and cushier. After months of discussing this issue, little has been said about the "domestic" consumption of illegal immigrant labor. You'd never guess that so many households rely on housekeepers, nannies and gardeners. When politicians and talk show hosts talk about getting tough with employers, the villain is usually some gigantic, faceless company. It's rarely our friends and neighbors, or the soccer moms who cruise around in their SUVs.

There's also the contradiction about what sort of immigrants we want to keep out. We insist that our concerns are limited to illegal immigration, and that we have no problem with legal immigrants. But then there are those individuals — including members of Congress — who call for a moratorium on legal immigration, or try to cut back on H-1B visas for high-skilled immigrants from countries such as China or India, or wring their hands over studies that predict that 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants, once legalized, could bring in tens of millions of family members legally over the next 20 years. So what? As long as the new arrivals come legally, what's the problem? I mean, what part of "legal" don't these people understand?

And lastly, there's the contradiction of insisting that racism and xenophobia aren't part of this discussion, especially when they've been part of every immigration reform discussion in the history of the Republic. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the 1924 Immigration Act — which used quotas to limit immigration from Southern Europe (read: Italy) — to the debate during World War II on how many Jewish refugees the U.S. should take in, we have never managed to have an ethnic-neutral, origin-neutral discussion of immigration reform. It always becomes about keeping out "those people." The present debate is no different, just because the people we're most eager to keep out have brown skin and speak Spanish. One of my readers is, at least, honest about it. His e-mail handle is "No More Mexicans."

This is one time when the problem isn't in Washington. It's on Main Street, and in the suburbs, and in our neighborhoods, cities and towns. And it's in the dishonest and hypocritical and self-defeating way in which we treat one of the most important and pressing issues of our time. Let's have hearings on that.

Ruben Navarrette is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego-Union Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist