For months, Republican presidential hopefuls steadfastly avoided any discussion of immigration, except to rotely demand tougher and stricter border enforcement.
Now we know why: They have no answers. In the weeks leading up to Tuesday's Florida primary, the candidates finally addressed the subject, seeking to woo Latino voters with fantastical fixes that purported to address the immigration crisis but in fact would do nothing to resolve it.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for example, believes that the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country will simply "self-deport" after his stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws makes it too difficult to for them find work. Under his plan, a national identification card and broader use of an electronic database that lets employers verify workers' immigration status would encourage many to leave.
But that ignores the fact that the economic downturn has already made jobs scarce, yet few illegal workers have left. Or that undocumented immigrants, who make up nearly 5% of the workforce and more than half of all U.S. agricultural workers, are already subject to harsh working conditions and low wages. Furthermore, despite his claims to the contrary, the increased use of ID cards and the E-Verify system will not prevent employers from hiring illegal immigrants, but will only drive them further into an underground economy.
Newt Gingrich's proposal is only slightly less dubious. The former speaker of the House suggests a path to legalization for aging grandparents and some undocumented immigrants who serve in the military. The remaining millions, however, would presumably have to go back to their home countries and apply for a yet-to-be-created guest worker program. Gingrich has yet to explain that program or what would happen to those illegal immigrants who leave but who, under current law, are barred from returning for up to 10 years.
And Rick Santorum refuses to engage in any discussion at all about a comprehensive approach, cautioning that such a proposal could spark a new wave of illegal immigration. He insists that all undocumented immigrants need to leave the country; if they want to return, they must get in line and emigrate legally, just as his grandfather and previous generations did. Of course, that assumes there is a line for poor immigrants. There isn't. Only 10,000 visas are granted annually to low-skilled foreign workers from around the world — a minuscule number compared with the numbers seeking visas or already in this country illegally. Those applying to join a parent, sibling or child in this country often spend years, and in some cases decades, waiting.
In the coming months, the GOP front-runners can't expect voters, especially Latinos, to settle for fictional solutions.