Navarrette: A rightward tilt to immigration reform

Conservatives for immigration reform. What a concept. Conservatives for immigration reform. What a concept. Photo Credit: Tribune Media Services / Donna Grethen

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As a Mexican-American living in the Southwest who writes frequently about immigration, my definition of what constitutes harsh language is probably a bit skewed. Recently, after I defended Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a reader -- a self-described liberal Democrat -- advised me to "get your head out of your ------, Senor."

I'd say that qualifies as harsh.

Lawrence Downes, an editorial writer for The New York Times, apparently is more easily offended. For him, the tone of the book "Immigration Wars," by Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick, is "unequivocally harsh."

What bothers liberals like Downes is that Bush seems to have changed his mind about whether 11 million illegal immigrants should get not only legal status but also a path to citizenship. All of this is on the table as the Senate's "gang of eight" prepares to unveil its immigration reform bill in early April.

Of course, what really bothers liberals is that Bush may run for president in 2016 and would attract Latino support. So liberals try to paint him as an immigration hard-liner. This won't be easy for those who actually bother to read the book.

In the preface, Bush says this about his Mexican-born wife, Columba: "Thanks to my wife, I became bicultural and bilingual, and my life is better because of it." And this: "To restore sustained, economic growth going forward, we need a new immigration strategy that opens our doors to young, aspirational people from around the world, so that they can pursue their dreams in our country."

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Meanwhile, Bolick, a lawyer for conservative causes, writes about farmworkers he met years ago: "I recognized in their weathered, callused hands the same dirt-caked fingernails I had seen on my father's hands. . . . I came to believe that we should not be looking for ways to keep people like those farmworkers out of our country. We should be looking for ways to bring them in."

In fact, the more I read the book, the less I saw similarities between what the authors were saying and what the media wanted us to think they were saying.

Bolick noticed this too.

"The interviews had more to do with the media trying to sabotage any political plans that Jeb Bush might develop than with what we were saying," he told me. "It was very difficult to get the heart of the message out."

I also asked how conservative audiences are reacting, since the authors don't pull punches with their own tribe.

"Reaction from right-wing groups was much more positive than I expected," Bolick said. "People had no idea how screwed up our immigration system is. So if the book makes a contribution, I hope it'll be bringing people up the learning curve. And once they begin to understand how bad things are, they are going to be very receptive to the kinds of solutions we're proposing."

The book is heavy on solutions, good and bad. The authors are right that there should be a "path to permanent legal resident status for those who entered our country illegally as adults and who have committed no additional crimes of significance." But they're wrong about inviting local police to help enforce immigration law in the name of states' rights. They believe states should have flexibility to aid federal efforts in rounding up illegal immigrants. Yet the courts have concluded the best policy for the states is hands-off.

Bolick suggested that many on the right are ready for reform.

"I think there were a lot of Republicans and a lot of conservatives who were already hoping for an immigration solution," Bolick said. "But they were cowed into submission by the loud, vehement anti-immigration wing of the party. People now feel safe to say out loud what they've always thought. They come up to me and say: "I agree with you 100 percent. I've always felt this way.' "

Conservatives for immigration reform. What a concept. This can't be an easy road to travel. These folks need a safe haven. This immensely valuable book provides one.

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