Xenophobia road show

June 22, 2006

House Republicans, bereft of accomplishment and burdened with an increasingly unpopular war, have hit upon a new strategy for retaining their majority in the fall elections. They plan to churn up the fear, frustration and resentment at illegal immigration deeply embedded in their conservative base through a summer series of hearings that will take their harsh border-control bill on the road.

Their constituents and the nation as a whole would be far better served if the lawmakers spent their summer in Washington, ironing out a compromise with the Senate that takes the practical and humane approach to immigration reform that is critical to strengthening border security.

But the field hearings gambit virtually ensures that the deeply divided Republicans won't have the time or the political will this year to produce any form of border security or immigration reform legislation - and signals that GOP leaders have already written it off.

Instead, Republican committee chairmen will head out to the South and Southwest and wherever else anti-immigrant concerns run high. They'll seek to prove that their get-tough, fence-'em-out approach is more popular than trying to create a realistic program for dealing with the more than 11 million undocumented workers here, as President Bush and the Senate propose.

Of course, GOP leaders don't need hearings to gauge voter sentiment. They know from Republican Brian P. Bilbray's recent success in claiming a vacant House seat in California that railing against the incoming flow of humanity that seemingly will stop at nothing for the promise of a better life scores very well with their base. That's the point. Illegal immigrants make an easy bogeyman to run against. Like gays who seek to marry. Or flag-burners, if any can be found.

Voters who find this approach appealing should remember that talk is cheap. Complex problems often require unpopular solutions and leaders who can summon the nation to a higher purpose than what may appear to be immediate self-interest. And so far, the success record for this Congress is blank.

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