Opinions columnist, 2007-2022

What is it about the immigration issue that brings out the worst in politicians?

Neither Mitt Romney nor Rick Perry has a history of being an immigration hard-liner. Romney supported George W. Bush’s attempt at comprehensive immigration reform in 2005, which included a (difficult) path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. When I attended a dinner with Perry during his 2010 campaign for reelection as Texas governor, he was particularly passionate about the need for Republican outreach to Hispanics.

Yet Romney has attacked Perry for allowing educational benefits in Texas for the children of undocumented immigrants — calling this policy “a magnet to draw illegals into the state.” Perry has responded that Romney’s Massachusetts health-care reform permitted the medical treatment of undocumented immigrants, which a Perry campaign spokesman calls an “illegal immigration magnet.” In this exchange, both campaigns have managed — extending the metaphor — to be repellent.

It is one thing to debate techniques of enforcement along the United States’ southern border. Most of the Republican candidates seem to prefer construction of a physical wall — a public-works program of questionable utility that would make the Great Pyramid seem a minor, shovel-ready project in comparison. Herman Cain wants the barrier electrified. Michele Bachmann proposes two walls, just in case. Perry, who knows something about the vastness of Texas, seems flummoxed by the absurdity of the whole idea.

But a wall, at least, is a defensive measure. Building it would be wasteful instead of vicious. It is another matter to attack the provision of health and education benefits. This approach to immigration policy imposes penalties on the sick and injured, or on students who have often violated no law themselves. In most ethical systems, both groups would merit particular sympathy. At the very least, neither group deserves to be placed high on the enforcement target list.

Apart from moral considerations, the denial of basic public benefits to undocumented immigrants and their children raises a number of practical questions: How does it benefit the United States to purposely limit the educational and life prospects of a whole category of students? Isn’t it more costly to provide health care in emergency rooms — where universal access is federally mandated — than to permit treatment in public programs? Isn’t public health broadly undermined by untreated disease, whatever the legal status of those who suffer from it?

Supporters of harsh restrictions argue that — however unpleasant — these measures are necessary to end incentives for illegal immigration. But the whole magnet theory is questionable. There is not much correlation between the level of illegal immigration to a state and the breadth of its health and education benefits. Immigrants generally do not come to the United States for the pleasures of its emergency rooms, or expecting to need future cancer treatment, but in pursuit of economic opportunity. In recent years, the dynamic Texas economy has attracted a considerable number of illegal immigrants; the anemic California economy has attracted fewer. The offer of in-state college tuition rates for the children of undocumented workers has little to do with it.

Romney, Perry and the others are, unfortunately, reflecting current Republican sentiments. Legitimate concerns — including overwhelmed public services in some communities — and high unemployment have combined to heighten resentment against illegal immigration. But it is the responsibility of political leaders to address this issue without inflaming it. The cynical accommodation of anger encourages serious division in a permanently diverse country. It is primarily the fault of politicians when the immigration debate turns ugly.

Republicans have a direct interest in avoiding ugliness. Hispanic political influence is not only increasing but concentrated in competitive states — a key to electoral success in states such as Nevada, Colorado and Arizona. The recent past offers encouragement to the GOP. In the 2004 election, Bush won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. And President Obama has left a political opening. Hispanic unemployment exceeds 11 percent, and the administration has consistently discovered legislative priorities higher than immigration reform. On issues of Hispanic concern, Obama’s lip service has been deafening.

To gain a respectable level of Hispanic support, Republicans don’t need to play a sophisticated game of ethnic politics. They need to offer the realistic hope of job creation and economic mobility. And one more thing. They need to stop targeting the sick and aspiring.