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Bill Clinton, it should be duly noted, ran like a coward from the issue — even as record numbers of Mexicans came across the border. Shortly after taking office, he blockaded the traditional urban migrant-crossing points — like San Diego and El Paso — and cynically rerouted illegal immigration through hostile deserts and mountains, hoping the issue would be out of sight, out of mind.

Clinton's policy, if you deign to call it such, was indistinguishable from the current stance of the Minutemen. The only thing that changed during his eight years in office was the border-crossing death rate, which increased tenfold. Over the similarly "dead bodies," as he put it, of enviros and unions, Clinton also strong-armed his own party into approving NAFTA.

Since then, Mexican wages have only fallen and 2 million subsistence farmers, drowned out by cheap U.S. imports, have gone bankrupt and started fleeing north. Instead of tamping down illegal immigration, NAFTA has only been a lubricant.

After years of arduous work by immigration advocates, and vigorous lobbying from American business, which has become dependent on immigrant labor, comprehensive reform finally came before the Senate this past month. The urgency of the issue was underlined by the historic million-person demonstration that blossomed from L.A. to Denver to New York City — a stark reminder that Latinos are no longer a political constituency to be ignored.

Finally, a sensible four-point solution to our immigration crisis emerged in the form of the McCain-Kennedy proposal. Tightened border and workplace enforcement would be coupled with a guest-worker program along with a path for legalization for the 12 million undocumenteds already living here. This practical, fair and realistic plan won wide support — stretching from Big Business to organized labor, from liberal Democrats to some conservative Republicans.

But then there's those other Republicans: The quasi- and out-front xenophobes in the House who passed their own ill-guided "enforcement-only" measure. And the restrictionists in the Senate, led by Majority Leader Bill Frist, who oppose both guest-worker and legalization plans.

That Republican split, a low-intensity civil war really, bubbled into view recently. But with a GOP facing a potential electoral Waterloo this fall, and with a wounded president bleeding his political clout, the party pooh-bahs have seemed to pull back in a desperate search for agreement. The talk lately has been of some sort of grand "compromise" — a more limited guest-worker program and a path to legalization only for those who have been here at least five years. That would have covered about 60 percent of the 12 million here. That means another 5 million would still be left in limbo. The architects of this half-measure said this group would now have to go home.

What they really meant, of course, was that they would continue to work and live in the shadows — every bit as "illegal" as they are now. I can't say I was surprised by this turn of events. Why any shock over a policy so riddled with semidenial, when it derives from decades of total denial? Our elected representatives, in other words, have been presented a package of reforms that they know make sense. And their response is, consciously, to only partially do it. At best. It looked more and more like Bill Frist would scuttle all reform. His own presidential aspirations and his apparent willingness to surf the immigrant-bashing wave have overcome any sense of national duty.

Big surprise. What's made the debate of the past few weeks so frustrating is the bad faith and gross ignorance employed by our elected officials. This should not be a discussion for or against illegal immigration. Who, anyway, is in favor of the former? Though we now know that the courageous Mr. Frist is opposed to it.

The flow of poor people into the world's most successful economy is going to continue no matter what we do. I've argued this point till I'm blue, so no need to rehearse it. Our real choice is whether we want that de facto immigration to be legal or illegal. To date we have blindly and rather stupidly chosen the latter. Looks like after a few weeks of relative enlightenment, after the barest of national debates, we are about to retreat once again into the comfort of darkness. S



Marc Cooper is senior editor for L.A. Weekly, where this story first appeared. He also contributes to The Nation and the Los Angeles Times, and is host of the weekly syndicated Radio Nation. He writes about immigration issues on his blog, http://marccooper.com/immigration-issue-explodes.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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