We knew it all along: Self-preservation was always the main reason why so many Republicans were opposed to giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
But if we had any doubts, a new proposal by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., confirms the main thing Republicans fear is a backlash once these immigrants become voters.
After bashing immigrants for so long, Republicans know that once these immigrants are eligible to cast ballots, they would remember those who made them feel so unwelcome for so long.
And that's why Specter, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now floating a plan that would grant legal status to the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants but offers them no path to citizenship.
With this proposal, Specter expects to change the minds of at least some of his GOP colleagues, who derailed a comprehensive immigration bill in June. Apparently, he believes if he eliminates the threat of a voter backlash, at least some recalcitrant Republicans will finally realize they can't deport 12 million people and go along with his plan.
But of course, there is one huge problem with this idea: It creates a new category of second-class workers in the nation that Abraham Lincoln said was "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
Because so many illegal immigrants are eager to come out of the shadows and lead normal lives, there is no doubt such a proposal would have many takers. But at what cost? Can we afford to betray our commitment to the concept of equal opportunity? Can we be proud of a nation that institutionalizes second-class citizens?
Whatever happened to, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free"? We used to be proud of those words. Are we renouncing the inscription on the Statue of Liberty?
Specter claims he has discussed his new proposal with President Bush and the two Cabinet members who led immigration talks with Congress this spring — Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. He has also sent letters to all his fellow senators urging them to restart the difficult immigration debate.
His new measure would be very similar to the bill recently rejected by the Senate, but it would omit the "Z visa" program that would have put illegal immigrants on a path, albeit long and arduous, to citizenship. The reasoning is that this proposal would give hard-liners less of an excuse to dismiss legalization as "amnesty."
"We litigated amnesty and that lost," Specter told reporters last week.
But as we've seen in the past, it doesn't matter how many draconian amendments they make to a comprehensive immigration reform bill. If it allows illegal immigrants to stay here legally, to the hard-liners, it will always be "amnesty." And for that reason, amending these measures to move them further to the right serves no logical purpose. Some xenophobes would never go along with it.
Specter says the new status he proposes for illegal immigrants "might be the equivalent of (having) a green card."
Well, not quite. While green card holders are eligible to become U.S. citizens within five years, Specter's plan only makes them eligible for indefinite exploitation. He says his plan's main thrust is "to bring the 12 million out of the shadows" and eliminate their fear of arrest and deportation.
Well, again, not quite. The main thrust is obviously to appease the hard-liners, fix the damaged Republican image among immigrants and give President Bush a desperately needed legislative victory. Certainly this is not the solution sought by illegal immigrants and their advocates.
Many observers are skeptical that the Senate will be willing to take up another comprehensive immigration reform bill so soon, especially because last week the Senate voted to spend an additional $3 billion on border security. Because of that vote, now there is even less of an incentive for resurrecting the defunct immigration debate.
Bottom line: Real immigration reform will not occur until politicians learn there is a high price to pay for bashing illegal immigrants. It will not happen until a few of the hard-liners get booted out of office. Who knows? Perhaps after the 2008 elections, no one will dare suggest that this "nation of immigrants" should have second-class citizens.
To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.