Ruben  Navarrette Jr.,

It's mind-boggling that folks at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue could spend so much time and energy over the last five years debating immigration reform, yet still manage to steer clear of some of the touchier issues involved.

Members of Congress were content to huddle around President Bush last week as he signed a bill calling for 700 miles of fencing on the U.S.-Mexican border. The photo-op was intended to fool us into thinking that something has been accomplished in the area of border security.

What was accomplished was very little. Even if lawmakers had come up with all the funding to pay for the fencing -- and they didn't -- barriers only squeeze more illegal immigrants through those parts of the border that aren't fenced off. In the 1990s, crackdowns in El Paso and San Diego sent millions of illegal immigrants to crossing points in the Arizona desert.

The country would have been better served by an honest discussion of matters indispensable to any meaningful debate of immigration policy:

-- Today's immigrants are not so different from those who came to America from Europe a century ago. The fact that the earlier wave came legally (there was no way to come illegally until the early 20th century, when Congress first took steps to limit immigration) didn't make them any more welcome at the time. Then, as now, the fear was that immigrants -- from Ireland or Italy -- wouldn't assimilate. And, of course, eventually they did.

-- Then, as now, racism and nativism were intrinsic parts of the discussion whether or not people were willing to admit it. How else does a nation of immigrants even begin to make the case that a new batch of immigrants is more menacing and harmful to society than previous batches unless you can argue that the new immigrants are somehow inferior to the old ones?

-- Illegal immigration is a self-inflicted wound. Local municipalities complain about the cost of providing education, health care and other services to illegal immigrants and their children. But they should at least be honest about the benefit their communities derive from the availability of cheap labor, which, in many cases, keeps local economies humming in cities such as Phoenix, Dallas or Las Vegas.

-- Despite popular misconceptions, Hispanic immigrants and their children are indeed assimilating just as they have been for generations. According to recent studies, they learn English and lose Spanish, adopt the common culture and shared values, and become Americanized. Fortune 500 companies may still rely on Spanish ad campaigns and other forms of ethnic marketing to sell their products, but, increasingly, Hispanics speak English.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.,

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

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