Like Hamlet pacing the stage in angst-ridden doubt, Speaker John Boehner this week delivered the message that immigration reform is dead for 2014. It's not that he doesn't realize the issue is important. It's not that he doesn't believe our current immigration system is broken. It's just that he'd rather suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than take arms to end the sea of troubles brewing in the GOP.
Boehner blames President Obama for his troubles. And he has a point -- up to a point. Republicans don't trust that the president will actually enforce a new law that includes stronger border security. Indeed, the president already has shown he's happy to ignore pesky provisions of laws with which he doesn't agree -- think not only his manipulation of Obamacare but also his decision to ignore federal drug statutes on marijuana, to name only two examples.
So why would Republicans believe the president will enforce border security? Never mind that this administration has deported more illegal immigrants than any administration in modern history: two million people. The AFL-CIO and other immigrant advocacy groups want the president to stop all future deportations until a new law is passed. Vice President Joe Biden has said the president won't accede to these demands, but his word isn't worth much in Republican circles.
But the bigger problem for Boehner and other Republicans who know that passing immigration reform is the right thing to do -- for the country -- is that they are afraid anti-immigrant groups with deep pockets will target them for defeat in their re-election bids.
This is a tragedy for the GOP. It speaks of a profound lack of true leadership -- and the decision endangers conservatism for future generations.
If the Republican Party becomes the party of nativists, it will die. If the GOP defines itself primarily by what it is against, it will lose Hispanics, but also young people, women, suburbanites and the business community.
Some argue that putting immigration reform on hold this year is the smart thing to do because the debate would become a distraction in an election that should focus on the disastrous failure of Obamacare. But that is true only if the tiny -- though influential -- group of anti-immigrant fanatics decide to make it so.
Right now these groups and individuals think they can blackmail the Republican leadership. "You put immigration reform on the legislative agenda this year, and we will pack your townhall meetings, bombard your congressional offices with phone calls and letters and emails, and maybe even field primary opponents against you," they threaten.
But what if GOP leaders started speaking with one voice and said, "No, we won't be blackmailed." Or course, it would take not only courage but also facts to take on the yahoos. They should start by acknowledging that securing our border requires more than fences, high-tech surveillance and deportations.
We could virtually end illegal immigration tomorrow if we adopted a guest worker program that allowed people to come here legally instead of sneaking across the border. In 1953, more than a million Mexicans crossed our border illegally. That is equivalent to almost two million in today's numbers given the smaller U.S. population at the time. With the passage of the Bracero Program, which permitted Mexicans to come as guest workers, the number of illegal border crossings dropped by more than 90 percent.
Republican leaders got it right two weeks ago when they adopted their policy statement on immigration reform. "The goal of any temporary worker program should be to address the economic needs of the country and to strengthen our national security by allowing for realistic, enforceable, usable, legal paths for entry into the United States," they said in the statement.
Boehner needs to get back up on stage and marshal his troops, not slink off in defeat before he's even tried.