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A Roadmap on Immigration for 2012

Recently, at a conference on the economy at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, Meg Whitman did a mea culpa for the entire Republican Party and how it treats the immigration issue.

“My view is that the immigration discussion, the rhetoric the Republican Party uses, is not helpful; it’s not helpful in a state with the Latino population we have,” Whitman said during a brief interview following a speech at a George W. Bush Institute conference on the economy. “We as a party are going to have to make some changes, how we think about immigration, and how we talk about immigration.”

Whitman was right on all points, of course. Some of us have been saying the same thing for the last several years.

Let’s face it. Whitman’s epiphany sounded a lot better than what she allegedly told her ex-housekeeper Nicky Diaz Santillan after firing her in June 2009 — shortly before Whitman announced her candidacy for governor. Whitman had employed Santillan for nine years and treated her like what the former eBay CEO described as “a member of our extended family.” That is, before the housekeeper asked for help in legalizing her status. After that, it was: Adios, Nicky.

Diaz Santillan alleged that Whitman fired her in a phone call, saying: “From now on you don’t know me, and I don’t know you. You never have seen me and I have never seen you. Do you understand me?” Then, Diaz Santillan said, Whitman hung up. The housekeeper said she felt as if she had been tossed away “like a piece of garbage.”

Now Whitman is saying that the Republicans’ approach to immigration is garbage.

Personally, I think that Republicans have to figure out how to even talk about immigration without sounding like one of the characters from The Wizard of Oz. Most of the time, on this issue, Republicans either come across like the Scarecrow (no brain), the Tin Man (no heart), or the Cowardly Lion (no courage).

No brain: Rather than think deeply about illegal immigration and how to control it, as well as how to fix the immigration system so more people can come to the United States legally, some Republicans merely recite bumper sticker slogans like “Deport all illegals” or “Seal the border.”

No heart: Rather than see the current debate as simply an extension of a conversation that has been going on since the late 1770s when Benjamin Franklin warned that German immigrants would ruin the young nation, some Republicans still portray the immigrants of today as inferior or dangerous.

No courage: Rather than admit the obvious —  that illegal immigrants only come to the United States because there are U.S. employers here who hire them, some Republicans steer clear of proposing employer sanctions for fear of angering their supporters and benefactors in the business community.

Before I spell out what should be the Republican approach to the immigration issue, let me make perfectly clear what’s wrong with the current approach.

It’s not that Republicans are tough on illegal immigration (if it doesn’t involve being tough on employers), or that they value the rule of law (except for wanting to change the 14th Amendment to eliminate birthright citizenship), or that they care about border security (as long as it’s the southern border), or that they care about American workers (as long as they’re not trying to weaken labor unions in states like Wisconsin).

It’s that Republicans can’t seem to talk about the immigration issue in a candid and honest way that eschews racism, acknowledges labor needs, and holds everyone accountable. The message is bad, and the tone is worse. It’s always us vs them, with Latinos on the “them” side.

The GOP needs a cleansing on the immigration issue. To get it going, any Republican running for president next year should:

(1) talk about how it’s unfair for illegal immigrants to jump the line when others have had to play by the rules and wait their turn;

(2) admit that Americans won’t do the jobs that illegal immigrants do at any price, and explain that this is why we need a guest worker program;

(3) stress that some of the estimated 10.3 million illegal immigrants in the United States should have a pathway to earned legal status if they meet conditions, including returning to their home country to be processed for legal reentry;

(4) call for harsh penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and make sure they’re enforced since we’ll never fix this problem unless we attack it at the roots;

(5) promise a complete overhaul of the system by which immigrants can legally migrate to the United States so we can bring in more of them through the front door and do it a lot quicker than we do now; and

(6) condemn in no uncertain terms the racism and nativism that poison this debate and threaten to make the Republican Party obsolete before the end of the century.

This is the only roadmap for 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls to survive the pitfalls of the immigration debate. Every other path leads to the political margins and to eventual defeat.