"I'm deeply concerned about America losing its soul. Immigration has been the lifeblood of a lot of our country's history," President Bush told McClatchy Newspapers in an exclusive interview last week. "I am worried that a backlash to newcomers would cause our country to lose its great capacity to assimilate newcomers." Bush also argued that "a lot of this immigration debate is driven as a result of Latinos being in our country."
I'll admit, I've read and heard some shamefully race-tinged arguments against the immigration bill before the U.S. Senate. I've also heard a lot of people who voice legitimate fears about the high cost of illegal immigration on taxpayer-funded services, as well as how the sheer volume of (presently illegal) immigrants could sabotage their assimilation into the middle class.
I know that those who think as I do are on the losing side of history. You don't grow up in an Irish family in Massachusetts without being steeped in lessons about the hostility heaped upon Irish immigrants and the "Irish Need Not Apply" signs.
In two generations, Latino children will be regaled with similar tales about the evil Proposition 187 in 1994, the Minutemen of 2004 and all the other bad people who didn't support liberalizing immigration law. They already hear such stories.
They won't hear about the legal immigrants whose families spent years waiting and slogging through the system to obtain green cards and apply for citizenship. They won't hear how these immigrants react to the federal government giving a pass to those who illegally jumped to the head of the line.
They won't hear that many Americans simply don't understand how America can reward illegal immigration and discourage it at the same time. They know that the last so-called immigration reform bill promised to curb illegal immigration -- but it didn't.
And they worry that the "comprehensive" immigration bill sponsored by Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., will cause the estimated population of 12 million illegal immigrants in America to balloon.
The children of today's immigrants won't hear how the influx of cheap labor depresses wages for low-skilled Americans. And they won't hear about the veiled racism of an illegal-immigration lobby that argues that America needs hard-working illegal immigrants to work the jobs that low-skilled Americans -- read: African Americans and underclass whites -- won't take.
They won't hear about the legitimate concerns about how importing poverty from the Third World might flood America with low-paid workers and whittle down the healthy margin of middle-class families in America.
They won't know that some opponents of the immigration bill fear that a libertarian-style push for cheap labor also can undermine the soul of America, if a glut of undereducated workers makes it harder for each newcomer to move up the rungs of the ladder of the American dream.
I can respect why Bush and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are pushing for this immigration bill. They see the future, and they want to welcome Latino and other immigrants into the American fold.
They also have heard from employers who warn that they may go out of business or be forced to pick up stakes and set up shop across the Mexican border. If too many businesses go away, that can't be good for the U.S. economy.
And I can accept a compromise that paves the way to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, if they can convince me that they will keep a handle on the numbers of new residents using public schools and services.
In this term, Bush has beefed up border enforcement and prosecutions of corporations that knowingly hire undocumented workers. Still, Bush is not going to convince me that he will be serious about going after illegal immigrants who do not qualify for legal residence, a la Kennedy-Kyl, when he won't recognize where loosening immigration laws might go wrong.
Bush and McCain both make the dishonest argument that the only alternative is to deport every illegal immigrant. Wrong. Any rube can tell you that the most likely alternative is the status quo.
What is more, Bush and McCain do a disservice to imply that racism is the key reason why critics oppose the Kennedy-Kyl bill.
Message to Washington: If you want Americans to approve of an immigration compromise, show some respect. We, too, care about America's soul -- we value the important legacy of immigrants to America, but nonetheless fear what rewarding illegal immigration might do to this country.
I understand how folks who think as I do will be described in the future, but I do believe we deserve better treatment from George W. Bush today.