WASHINGTON - Of course it's amnesty. The whole point of comprehensive immigration reform is to bring 11 million undocumented men, women and children out of the shadows, which means giving them some kind of legal status, which amounts to amnesty. Otherwise, why bother?
So the Senate did the sensible thing last week and passed a bill allowing law-abiding immigrants who are here without papers to stay -- and eventually become citizens. Whether the House follows suit may depend on whether Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has finally had his fill of Washington's most thankless job.
Seems to me it should be an easy call. Leading the House Republican majority is like trying to get a bunch of cats to do synchronized swimming. Surely Boehner's gluttony for punishment has limits.
I say all this despite the fact that Boehner has already ruled out the simplest course of action, which would produce the best outcome for the nation and also boost the prospects of the Republican Party: Bring the Senate bill up for a vote.
Under the most likely scenario, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has the whole cat-herding thing down pat, would deliver virtually the entire Democratic caucus in support. Most Republicans would vote no, but there should be enough defections to push the measure over the 218-vote threshold and send it to President Obama for his signature.
Obama would be able to trumpet a centerpiece accomplishment for his second term. But the GOP would reap far greater political gain by sending a message to Latinos -- the nation's largest minority group -- that's different from the customary "Go away."
The Republican establishment is desperate to get immigration reform over and done with. The arithmetic is simple: In last year's election, with Mitt Romney advocating "self-deportation" as a solution for the undocumented, Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote and 73 percent of the Asian-American vote. If these fast-growing minority groups become as loyal to the Democratic Party as African-Americans are, the GOP's ability to compete in national elections will be in serious doubt.
Members of the House, however, run in local elections -- and most are in districts gerrymandered to be "safe." There are those in Boehner's caucus who recognize that immigration reform needs to be approved for the good of the party, but who worry -- with good reason -- that if they vote for amnesty they will invite a primary challenge from the far right.
And there are others, of course, who genuinely oppose any sort of amnesty for the undocumented, much less a path to citizenship. I find this view mystifying because it has so little to do with the real world. Once you acknowledge that we're not going to round up 11 million people and ship them home, and that they're not going to self-deport, what do you do? Pretend all these people don't exist?
The Senate bill is a reasonable compromise between good policy and the nonsense that has to be thrown in to make any legislation viable these days. We're going to add more fencing and more surveillance to a border that is already heavily fenced and surveilled. We're going to hire more Border Patrol agents and tell ourselves that we have "secured" a frontier that is nearly 2,000 miles long, that runs largely through remote badlands, and that will never be the kind of hermetic seal that some people fantasize.
Boehner has said that rather than vote on what the Senate sent over, he will allow the House to develop its own immigration bill. Good luck with that.
It is hard for me imagine that conservative House Republicans will support any bill that provides a path to citizenship. I can't even imagine most of the GOP caucus supporting a bill that gives legal status to the undocumented -- amnesty, in other words -- without imposing so many impossible conditions that the upshot is no change at all.
If the past is any guide, Boehner's pledge to follow the wishes of a majority of House Republicans is as good as gold -- until he breaks it. This time, however, the issue is so fraught that he likely would face a rebellion. Shortly after the House passed the Senate immigration bill, irate tea-party conservatives could depose Boehner from his post.
The nation would get the immigration reform it needs, and Boehner wouldn't have to teach cats to swim anymore. He should consider it a win-win.