Judging from the initial public reaction to the immigration reform bill drafted by the Senate's "Gang of Eight," many Americans have been pretending to be moderates on this issue when they are actually closer to the extremes.
They've been saying one thing when they really believe another. They've been trying to fool the rest of us into thinking they're fair-minded and ready to negotiate when actually their positions are set and their minds are shut. They've been stringing us along, saying they might support immigration reform as long as certain conditions are met. In truth, some of them would almost seem to prefer the status quo.
Now a group of senators from both parties has given them what they claim they wanted by introducing the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013. It's a meticulously crafted compromise that answers most of the concerns on the right and the left. In response, both sides are backtracking and changing the narrative. Regardless of whether they think our immigration policy should be tougher or more compassionate, they're still not satisfied.
This could simply mean that the bill is a work in progress and a long way from perfect. But there's more to it. What it really tells us is that many Americans haven't been honest about what really concerns them. And this reveals a lot about their true intentions.
For instance, conservatives have claimed that they could support some type of legalization program for undocumented immigrants if the nation's borders were secured and enforcement enhanced. They also insisted that they had nothing against legal immigrants, and that what really bothered them about the prospect of letting the undocumented remain in the United States legally was that the immigrants might go on welfare and "cut in line" with an expedited path to citizenship.
All this is addressed in the bill, which requires illegal immigrants to pay fines, eschew welfare and wait 10 years for a green card and another three years for U.S. citizenship. The legislation also smooths the path for legal immigrants and provides billions for more fencing, better surveillance and additional Border Patrol agents.
And what is the conservative response to this hard line? They think it's still not hard enough. The fence should be higher, the fines stiffer, the wait for legal status longer. Meanwhile, on the left, we were assured that liberals who want a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants recognized the right of the United States to protect its borders. They said they were fine with illegal immigrants meeting conditions to obtain legal status and even used that as a negotiating ploy. One proposed condition is a criminal background check, and liberals raised no objection because they claimed they were only advocating for hardworking, law-abiding immigrants. Lastly, they insisted that immigrants did not come here to get on welfare, and that they deserved legal status because many of them had put down roots in this country.
Again, these concerns were dealt with in the new bill, which makes ineligible for legal status any recent arrivals that came to this country after Dec. 31, 2011. It says those people can be deported and also bars from the legalization process those convicted of certain crimes.
Does this please the left? Not on your life. Liberals now insist that the bill isn't compassionate enough to the poor, makes immigrants jump through too many hoops, excludes too many people and infringes on the rights of those who may have been arrested for a crime but paid their debt to society.
It's dizzying. But it's not difficult to understand. Many conservatives may claim that they care about securing the borders and ensuring that immigrants follow the rules. But what really worries them is that immigrants from Latin America are changing the cultural and linguistic landscape of the United States. Many liberals may claim that they're fine with imposing conditions as to who gets to legally remain in the United States and barring some people from participating. But what they really believe is that the border should be open and human beings allowed to cross it as easily as trade goods do in a free market.
So why put on the charade? It's all to appear reasonable and moderate and open-minded. For many Americans, the immigration debate is about keeping out illegal immigrants or keeping alive the possibility of reform. But for some, it's mostly about keeping up appearances.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.