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Saturday, Jan 25 2014 11:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Squishiness abounds in reform debate

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    Robert Price is The Californian's executive editor. Email him at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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By ROBERT PRICE, Californian executive editor rprice@bakersfield.com

Bakersfield’s Fox affiliate, KBFX, went with a story last week announcing that Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republicans’ No. 3 man in Congress, had budged a bit on immigration reform.

“Republican leaders, including House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, are calling for the first time to give legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States,” Channel 58’s Jose Gaspar reported Wednesday.

Whoa, McCarthy’s braintrust responded after the story aired. McCarthy hadn’t changed his position at all. Yes, House Speaker John Boehner is about to announce a set of “principles” that will guide the party as the immigration debate moves forward, and, yes, McCarthy has played a major role in the development of those principles. But Americans would be wrong to assume that these principles (which Boehner could announce as early as today, in advance of Tuesday’s State of the Union address) will represent anything new or remotely specific.

But if these principles indeed turn out to be nothing more than a formalized declaration of the same old talking points, let’s not blame McCarthy. The GOP leadership’s position on immigration is to not take a position.

Yes, I know: Most House Republicans, McCarthy foremost among them, have consistently stated that the U.S. needs to fortify its borders before they will support any reform bill. They have insisted that there will be no amnesty. The rest of us are left to figure out what all of that means.

Two thousand miles of 12-foot-high razor wire from Tijuana to Brownsville? That’s not happening, and every sane Republican in Congress knows it. And if amnesty means everyone who simply asks gets lawful residency status and a Costco card, no questions asked, I oppose it too. But nobody is suggesting anything of the sort.

If the Republicans have a coherent position at all, it’s this: Maintain an unyielding front to placate their conservative base but dangle around concepts like “legal status” so that coveted Latino voters — many of whom hold conservative views on social issues but otherwise lean left — remain in play for them. That’s the elephant-in-the-room conundrum for the GOP: How to win the support of a huge voting bloc that will only get huge-er, no matter what the fate of those 11 million undocumented immigrants. The very existence of the party could well depend on how leaders like McCarthy manage this very real and delicate crisis.

Observers with better a vantage point than me say they’ll handle it by being deliberately vague and nonspecific and seeing how it plays. The National Journal says to expect terminology that is “intentionally squishy.” The Republicans’ statement of principles will focus on border security, the nebulous concept that serves as a rallying cry for many conservative voters, but won’t offer much in the way of numbers, dates or steps.

Problem is, this squishiness creates a void of purpose that is backfilled with ignorance and misunderstanding. Immigration reform is not some kind of emancipation proclamation that bestows citizenship on foreigners the moment they squeeze through a hole in a border fence.
Done right, it’s a way to create an accounting of who’s already here, and for what purpose.

Establishing concrete prerequisites for legal status, be it a guest worker visa program, citizenship, and everything in between, will be a vast improvement over our current policy of sanctioned uncertainty.

Some of McCarthy’s colleagues, most notably David Valadao of Hanford and Jeff Denham of Turlock, acknowledge this. McCarthy, whose farm-labor-reliant district is 35 percent Latino, ought to be out in front of that realization.

Email Executive Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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