SAN DIEGO — When it comes to insults in the immigration debate, Republicans can dish it out. But they can’t take it.
When playing to nativists, some Republicans have said that immigrants spread disease, take jobs, commit crimes, lower property values, crowd prisons, harm the environment, trash schools and lead to the overall ruin of civilization.
Yet along with thick heads, conservatives can also have thin skins.
A few weeks ago, they fumed when Jeb Bush, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, urged the GOP to tone down its immigration rhetoric.
Now they’re angry at John Boehner. The House speaker recently mocked fellow Republicans for ducking the immigration issue because it’s so difficult.
Speaking to the Middletown Rotary Club in Ohio, Boehner poked fun at his colleagues for not having backbone.
“Here’s the attitude,” he said. ” ‘Ohhhh. Don’t make me do this. Ohhhh. This is too hard.’ You should hear them. You know, we get elected to make choices. We get elected to solve problems, and it’s remarkable to me how many of my colleagues just don’t want to. . . . They’ll take the path of least resistance.”
You don’t say? What is remarkable is that, after serving 23 years in Congress, Boehner is finally admitting that his colleagues are reluctant to cast votes that put their cushy jobs at risk. Lawmakers have long avoided difficult conversations about how to reform Medicare and Social Security, cut government spending and reduce the national debt.
In the remarks to his constituents, Boehner claimed that he’s been working for more than a year to try to push immigration reform through the House.
“I’ve had every brick and bat and arrow shot at me over this issue just because I wanted to deal with it. I didn’t say it was going to be easy,” he said.
Really? Apparently, the speaker has a generous idea of what it means to “deal with” a subject. President Barack Obama has the same habit, insisting that he has been pushing immigration reform when the only thing he is pushing is the number of deportations.
Once or twice in the past year, Boehner has made a passing reference to the need to tackle immigration. That’s leadership lite. At one point, he set out principles that would guide any GOP reform effort. Then, a few days later, he backed off because, he said, Obama couldn’t be trusted on immigration.
You’re kidding. Activists on the left figured this out some time ago, which explains why there are protesters staging hunger strikes outside the White House gate.
Boehner was correct to note that his fellow Republicans lack courage when the subject turns to immigration. Yet he didn’t go far enough in the indictment. Republicans aren’t the only ones afraid of passing a meaningful reform that legalizes millions of undocumented immigrants.
Democrats pretend to want reform, but those are just words. They can say whatever they want, because they know Republicans can always be counted on to torpedo any legalization.
In truth, Democrats are just as afraid of immigration reform as Republicans. They realize what former Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., understood in 2005, when he lobbied 36 Democrats to support the draconian Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act – better known as “the Sensenbrenner bill” after its primary author, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. The bill would have made unauthorized presence in the United States a felony, and criminalized the act of offering charity to the undocumented.
Emanuel understood that if Congress was perceived as being in any way lenient on illegal immigrants, the blame would splatter back on his party. In the view of much of the public, Democrats are the “amnesty party.” So, if there ever were another mass legalization, Democrats might get a few minutes of glory but several election cycles worth of grief. This explains why Democrats discreetly helped killed reform efforts in 2006 and 2007.
Even last year’s Senate bill, which was passed largely by Democrats with a few Republican votes, isn’t lenient. It would double the size of the Border Patrol, and add more border fencing. Those are easy sells. Yet, it is estimated that the measure would provide a shot at legal status to only about half of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
This week, Boehner denied he had mocked his colleagues, insisting “you only tease the ones you love.”
Republicans need to move on. They also need to call the Democrats’ bluff, and pass an immigration bill that the opposing party will have to scuttle. That would produce the one thing this debate needs most: clarity.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at email@example.com.