Leadership by Evasion

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

IT HAS BECOME fashionable, among some leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, to use the immigration bill now before the Senate for target practice, harping on its supposed inadequacies to the delight of nativists in the party base. The strategy comes with a correlate, which is to avoid proposing any better approach that would address the nub of the problem: 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country. On immigration, leadership by evasion is becoming the Republicans' stock in trade.

The leading candidate for evader in chief is former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who seemed to favor the immigration bill before he opposed it. Eighteen months ago, he said the idea that illegal immigrants should register with the government, pay taxes, work for a number of years and pay a fee before being allowed to apply for citizenship struck him as "reasonable." Now he makes political hay by blasting the Senate bill, which includes just such an arduous route to eventual citizenship, as "amnesty" -- a bald-faced distortion but a crowd-pleaser for many primary voters.

So what would Mr. Romney suggest doing about the 12 million, a few of whom apparently did landscaping work on the grounds of his expansive Massachusetts home? Well, nothing, really. "I'm not a legislator, at least not currently," he boldly told reporters in Florida last month, "so I'm not going to give you legislative language."

Rudy Giuliani is an even more egregious flip-flop artist; unlike Mr. Romney, who as governor cut illegal immigrants in Massachusetts no slack, the former New York mayor was a champion of their cause. He once forbade police and other officials in New York from asking immigrants about their legal status, and he pushed for creating an agency that would help illegal immigrants navigate the system. But as a presidential candidate, he has taken a much more cramped view, emphasizing the importance of tracking everyone who enters the country and dismissing the Senate bill as a "hodgepodge." As for the 12 million illegal immigrants, Mr. Giuliani -- who once said bluntly, and realistically, that most are here to stay -- is vague.

Even putative Republican candidate Fred Thompson has gotten into the duck-and-dodge act on immigration. Last year the former senator from Tennessee said sensibly that mass deportation "is not going to happen." Now he says "we should scrap this bill and the whole debate" until the nation's borders are secured. Never mind that the Senate bill would tighten the borders significantly.

Among the party's leading candidates, the honest voice on the issue belongs to Sen. John McCain, whose rivals have treated him as a punching bag for his troubles. In an impassioned speech yesterday, Mr. McCain, a longtime leading advocate for serious immigration reform, pointed out that the current non-system of immigration has become a festering national sore, and that to do nothing is to sidestep responsibility. Candidates who object to the Senate bill need "the responsibility and courage to propose another way," he said.

Pathetically, none has. Instead, a number of Senate Republicans hope to kill the bill by trying to affix various poisonous amendments to it, including one that would provide legal grounds for labeling millions of immigrants as aggravated felons and deporting them, and others that would sock illegal immigrants with tax burdens so heavy that most would never dare step on the path toward legalization. Their strategy is not to fix immigration; it's merely to pander and to leave in place an unworkable status quo.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company