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On Mosques, Borders, and Our 'Nation of Immigrants' This Election Season

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For those who spend their time trying to defend America's grand tradition as a "nation of immigrants," election seasons have become predictable trials by excruciating fire.

Today's "Radical Muslim Jihadists" and the "ILLEGAL immigrant INVASION" have replaced yesterday's "Welfare Queens" or "Hippie Communist Subversives" as the biennial targets of hateful opportunists, usually from the Republican side of the aisle. Democrats defend immigrants only long enough to harvest their votes, and then turn into pools of butter as they melt in the face of fierce bigotry.

During the past week, this predictable dance of Republican demagoguery and Democratic cowardice were on shameful display for the whole nation, as the debates over the "Ground Zero" Manhattan Mosque and border security grabbed the nation's headlines.

First, the facts for those who have spent their last month on vacation in a distant cave. Republican leaders from Sarah Palin to John Boehner and talk show demagogues such as Glenn Beck have rallied anti-Muslim anger into a national campaign against a Muslim community center several blocks from Ground Zero in Manhattan. The imam, Feisal Abdul Rauf, preaches an Islam of peace and "sweet spirituality." He has advised the FBI and has led a mosque some 12 blocks from the World Trade Center site for more than 20 years. But the facts do not matter in the quiet days of August when cable TV must broadcast manufactured controversy. The mosque, claimed Newt Gingrich on national TV, is led by "radical Islamists" who want to "triumphally" prove their "supremacy."

President Obama tried to stand firm in the face of this hysteria. At the annual White House Iftar dinner, a celebration marking the start of the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan, the President declared:

As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the... right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in Lower Manhattan.... This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable.... The writ of the Founders must endure."

That was last Friday. On Saturday, the "unshakeable" commitment got shaky, as Obama clarified, saying: "I was not commenting on and will not comment on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there."

By Monday the Democrats were in full retreat, with Senator Reid issuing a statement saying:

"The First Amendment protects freedom of religion. Senator Reid respects that, but thinks that the mosque should be built some place else."

Meanwhile, on the white-hot issue of reforming our nation's immigration system and securing our borders, the Republican and Democratic leaders were shaking to a similar version of the "chicken dance."

The tough-sounding Republican talking points for this election season are that "we must secure our borders" before we can discuss immigration reform. In the wake of the murder of popular Arizona rancher Robert Krentz in late March, Arizona passed the controversial SB 1070. Large parts of this "Papers Please" law have since been found unconstitutional by a federal judge responding to a Department of Justice lawsuit, but this has only sweetened the Republican perception of political gold in those Arizona hills.

Senator John McCain has embraced the "Border First" mantra with the zeal of a new convert, turning his back on his own long history of trying to find an actual bipartisan solution to our broken immigration system.

His pal, Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican point person on the immigration issue, just threw gasoline on the raging fire by suggesting that the real problem is legal immigrant children and that our nation's Constitution should be changed to address the crisis.

Meanwhile, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has skyrocketed in popularity with hysterical statements about law enforcement agents finding beheaded narco-traffickers in her deserts. (This interesting strategy to rebuild the Arizona tourist industry was debunked by county coroners.) The publicity-seeking bully Sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, continued his long history of defiance of the federal government and controversial tactics directed at the undocumented.

Again, the facts do not matter. Crime is down in Arizona generally and along the border, specifically. The total dollars spent on border enforcement costs have skyrocketed 332% since 1993 to $11.4 billion a year. The number of Border Patrol agents has doubled to 20,000 in just 8 years, and the number of man hours spent patrolling the border have increased from 200,000 to 800,000 from 1994 to 2004). Increased enforcement combined with the poor economy, has caused the number of people in the U.S. illegally to actually decline for the first time in a generation.

President Obama responded to border hysteria with a beautiful and forceful speech on the need for comprehensive solutions and blamed Republicans for obstructionism. The speech was delivered, unfortunately, six months too late to make any difference in the legislative season. Senator Reid weighed in last week. After saying that Hispanics should not be discriminated against because "their skin's a tone is darker," he declared: "I don't know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could ever vote Republican."

The words were fine, but then Reid, Pelosi, and the president -- who have been complaining that it was impossible to move immigration legislation this year -- used special sessions last week to push through a $600 million bill adding yet another 1,500 new border agents. President Obama signed the bill on Friday. The chicken dance continues.

The only good news last week is that, on the issue of immigration reform, the American people are way ahead of their politicians. A Chicago Tribune poll released showed that a crushing 87% of Chicago-area residents support giving legal status to the 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally, if they learn English, pay a fine, and are not dangerous felons. A national poll commissioned by Fox News found that, "Sixty-eight percent favor allowing illegal immigrants who pay taxes and obey the law to stay in the United States."

Maybe in November our fine leaders will return to Washington and actually do what the American people want -- pursue sensible, bipartisan solutions to our broken immigration system. In the meantime, I hope that not too much damage has been done to our American value of freedom of religion, our Constitution, and our tattered legacy as a "nation of immigrants."