Then came President George W. Bush — another Republican — who started the modern immigration reform debate when he announced that Mexico and the United States would match willing employers in the United States with willing workers in Mexico and in the process offer millions of illegal immigrants a shot at legal status if they were willing to earn it. And we should do all this, Bush said, to fill “jobs that Americans won’t do.” A lot of people in his own party hated that line. But Bush kept using it.
Nor did Vice President Dick Cheney retreat from his view that, for the sake of national security, 12 million illegal immigrants should be pulled from the shadows and offered legal status. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge agreed with that opinion, and so did his successor Michael Chertoff — both Republicans.
Meanwhile, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, it was a Republican — Sen. John McCain of Arizona — who championed the issue both in Congress and, later, on the campaign trail while running for president. And he caught grief for it. During the 2008 election, I asked McCain if there was any truth to a story I’d heard that Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), who also ran for the Republican nomination, taunted him during the primaries by implying that McCain was too simpatico to Latinos.
“Yeah,” McCain told me, “we were in a restaurant, and he just sent over a plate of nachos. What do you say to something like that? I just said, ‘Thanks very much.’”
When I asked him what he thought motivated Tancredo and his culture crusade, he didn’t mince words.
“Throughout our history,” McCain said, “we have had people who stoked nativist instincts.”
When was the last time you heard a liberal Democrat even utter the word “nativist”? They won’t. They’re afraid to, lest voters think they’re soft on illegal immigration.
Of course, McCain went on to lose the general election and the presidency to Barack Obama. That is the same Barack Obama who, during his brief time in the Senate, helped Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid kill an immigration reform bill as a favor to labor unions, which opposed language calling for guest workers. And it’s the same Barack Obama who spent the last year skirting an issue that Republicans have been brave enough to tangle with for the last quarter century.
I don’t care whether or not you support comprehensive immigration reform. But, if you’re going to cast the debate in terms of liberals and conservatives, at least tell the story right