Here's something you already know: Congress is a mess. Both houses, no matter what party controls them, alternate these days between hardheaded incompetence and cynical gimmicks.
Lawmakers will spend years avoiding a thorny subject because they are afraid of getting flak from constituents. Then, suddenly, they are in a huge hurry and can't wait for an idea to grab hold.
That's the case with immigration reform, which some lawmakers want us to believe has miraculously risen from the dead. You remember when it died. In the House, the bipartisan group that had tried to forge a compromise disintegrated. Congress quietly went on to other business.
Now immigration reform is back, or so we're told. House Democrats recently unveiled their own comprehensive immigration reform bill. This one is a kinder, gentler version of the one approved by the Senate in June because it backs off the half-baked ideas of adding 700 miles of border fencing and doubling the size of the Border Patrol from 20,000 to 40,000 agents.
Instead, it requires the Department of Homeland Security to draft a plan to apprehend 90 percent of illegal border-crossers in high-traffic areas within two years and across the entire U.S.-Mexico border within five years. But let's remember that the original hard-line language was inserted into the Senate bill to attract Republican votes. The fact that it is gone means that House Democrats have given up on getting support from across the aisle, and that this is all for show.
Some people are figuring it out. A group called the Dream Action Coalition, sensing that the new bill is dead on arrival, has said that it hopes that Democrats are not "just playing immigration politics."
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia and one of the leading Republicans in the immigration debate, is pushing what you might call "amnesty lite." Under his proposal, undocumented young people who were brought to the United States by their parents and go to college or join the military would get a pathway to earned citizenship. Undocumented immigrants who didn't meet those specifications would get a pathway to legal status without citizenship. Goodlatte insists that he still opposes a "special pathway to citizenship" but that he will support an "earned pathway to citizenship." In other words, the very thing that immigration reform advocates have been pushing, and he and other Republicans have spent the last several months railing against.
What do they call this dance? I still think that immigration reform is dead because neither party wants it to live. I also think that both parties have an interest in pretending this isn't the case.
Republicans know that they're facing a demographic firing squad with Latinos, who overwhelmingly support comprehensive immigration reform and will account for one-quarter of the U.S. population by 2030. Republicans don't want to give every illegal immigrant in America a path to citizenship because citizenship means voting. And voting means payback for every dumb thing that a Republican elected official has ever said about immigrants, which is a long list. But the GOP doesn't want to get punished for doing nothing either. So the trick is to figure out how little they can offer Latinos, and still get them to take it.
Meanwhile, Democrats are having way too much fun watching the GOP implode over the issue, with nativists who want less immigration slugging it out with businesses who want more of it. So every time that Republicans seem ready to throw in the towel on this debate, the Democrats pick it up and throw it back at them as if to say: "Oh no you don't. You're not getting off that easy. Get back in there and take your beating." This is the sort of immigration politics that the Dream Action Coalition is rightfully worried about, and the Democrats are playing that game at full steam. It's not about improving the lives of immigrants as much as making miserable the lives of Republicans.
The Dream-ers and other immigration reformers need to come to their senses and take the half loaf that Goodlatte and other Republicans are offering. It's not everything. But it's better than nothing, which is what the reformers are going to end up with when this is all over if they follow the path that the Democrats have drawn out for them.
At this point in the immigration debate, Republicans appear to want to make headway. Democrats just want to make mischief.
Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist.