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Cowardice or Courage? The Republicans' Choice on Immigration

02/08/2013 02:16 pm ET | Updated Apr 10, 2013

There are two types of Republicans on Capitol Hill; those who are willing to forge a consensus on immigration reform for the good of the country, and those who are not. Both were on full display this week.

In a House Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday Republican lawmakers grilled San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (D-TX) with questions calculated to suggest that the Democrats' support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is tantamount to opening up the nation's borders to anyone who wants to come here. "Do you believe there should be a limit to the people brought into the United States?" Representative Steve King (R-IA) sarcastically asked Castro. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the chair of the committee, went so far as to characterize a "pathway to citizenship for those not lawfully present in the United States" as an extremist position. And it got uglier. "Whatever else we disagree on" declared Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), "I think we can agree that that's a more toxic and contentious issue -- ramming [through] full amnesty."

Never mind that a recently released Gallup poll found that Americans widely support a broad overhaul of the dysfunctional immigration system, including a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the U.S. without lawful status.

Worse than the GOP grandstanding were the witnesses called to back up the Republicans' rhetoric, including Chris Crane, president of the ICE agents' union. Despite his union's affiliation with the AFL-CIO which supports immigration reform, Crane has been a vocal opponent of President Obama's use of prosecutorial discretion to prioritize the deportation of immigrants who pose a threat to American citizens. In his testimony Crane made the outrageous claim that the administration has ordered ICE agents not to enforce the immigration law. Perhaps Crane should tell that to the 1.5 million people who have been deported since Mr. Obama took office, including hard working fathers and mothers of U.S. citizens whose only crime was to dream of a better life for their children. It's a good thing for Mr. Crane that he did not testify under oath.

Elsewhere in Washington, another House Republican offered a very different message. In a speech before at the American Enterprise Institute, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) told his audience that he supported a pathway to citizenship for DREAMERs, a guest worker program, increased employer verification, and more visas for science, technology, engineering and math graduates. Like other Republicans who have re-calibrated their views since the November elections, Cantor spoke of fixing the broken immigration system without peppering his speech with incendiary terms like "illegal alien" or "amnesty".

Unlike his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee, Cantor had the guts not to fall back on what Greg Sargent of the Washington Post termed "rhetorical gimmickry," which, simply put, amounts to cynically conflating complex issues to scare the public into opposing immigration reform. Cantor struck a tone similar to other Republicans, such as Senators Marco Rubio, Lindsay Graham and John McCain who have recognized that the American people deserve better than a mean spirited debate chock-full of racially charged phrases like "illegal immigrant" and limited to inhumane policy proposals like "self-deportation". Cantor, who has never before supported giving DREAMERs a shot at citizenship, appears to understand that it will take political courage on both sides of the aisle to construct an immigration policy designed to keep America's borders secure, its families safe and together, and its businesses globally competitive.

The good news is that Cantor is not alone. Others in the House GOP are evolving on immigration reform. While he has not yet followed Cantor's lead and endorsed the DREAM Act, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has recognized that the busted immigration system must be fixed. Other Republicans in Congress have joined a bipartisan group quietly working to forge an immigration reform plan.

Hopefully the GOP antagonism on display during Tuesday's House Judiciary hearing represents an increasingly rare breed of Republican on Capitol Hill. Immigration reform advocates may not agree with everything Republicans like Cantor, Rubio, Graham or McCain propose. But they should applaud them for having the sense to contribute to the national conversation on immigration reform.

The nation is presented with an historic opportunity to finally build an immigration policy worthy of America's proud history as a nation of immigrants. And the Republicans in Washington have a choice. They can continue to cower in the dark corner of the restrictionist fringe, eschewing any positive policy proposal as an unacceptable "amnesty" and parroting the same old racially charged nativist talking points. Or they can follow leaders like Eric Cantor and others who are now thinking about what is best for their party and, more importantly, for the country.