Littwin: Just don’t say ‘amnesty’

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he big story out of the House Republican retreat is, of course, the House Republican retreat on immigration reform.

The retreat doesn’t mean reform is a sure thing. I’d guess it’s not even a 50-50 thing. In fact, even if you were lucky enough to have immigration reform in your 2014 House agenda pool, I still wouldn’t be spending the money quite yet.

But House GOP leaders have issued a one-page set of principles that does embrace reform and would, tellingly, include something like the A-word — yes, amnesty — although it tries desperately to say otherwise.

In this set of principles, we learn that the way to embrace amnesty — because there’s no real immigration reform without it — is to change the meaning of the word. Amnesty used to mean, well, amnesty — some kind of legal forgiveness for immigrants who had crossed the border illegally to, you know, steal our jobs/pick our lettuce.

Now, amnesty means — and I quote — “no special path to citizenship” for the 11 million who are living here illegally.

[pullquote]In the new Republican set of principles, we learn that the way to embrace amnesty — because there’s no real immigration reform without it — is to change the meaning of the word.[/pullquote]

Of course, that still allows the regular path to citizenship. (The “special path” passed by the Senate, by the way, takes 13 special years to complete.) And it does mean, according to these principles, that those immigrants who jump through a certain number of hoops can live here “legally and without fear,” even if they’re not citizens and therefore can’t, as Republicans fear, vote for the Democrat of their choice.

And, in a coup de chutzpah, the principles now embrace the Dream Act, saying (for real) that “children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children through no fault of their own …” Is this really coming from the party that brought us the “anchor baby”?

It’s certainly a large leap from the party of 2012 that recommended self-deportation as the model for immigration reform and watched as Mitt Romney lost the Latino vote by a 71-27 margin. This was, of course, a demographic nightmare that figures to grow worse in all minority communities unless Republicans do something about it other than blaming the 47 percent. (Note to Colorado GOP: That something would not include nominating Tom Tancredo as your gubernatorial candidate, but that’s another column.)

Unless this is a giant bluff, it is a major course shift for Republicans, who find themselves losing in virtually every minority community. But it would also be — as Salon’s Brian Beutler notes — a dilemma for Democrats, who have insisted that a path to citizenship is a guiding principle. The long route to citizenship was the centerpiece of the Senate bill, which passed with bipartisan support. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the obvious thing to do. We don’t pass laws to create different classes of Americans, do we?

We’ll find out. Maybe we do.

A number of pro-reform Latino groups have already welcomed the Republican opening. So have Michael Bennet and John McCain, who were, remember, both part of the Senate Gang of Eight that helped get immigration through the Senate.

Some reformers were pointing to a poll by the Pew Hispanic Center that said a majority of Latinos think it’s more important to be able to live and work legally than it is to have a path to citizenship.

What would Democrats do in the end? How would they even begin to truly measure what this means in the various Latino communities? Is this a principle liberals can afford to abandon?

It is a dilemma, but my guess is that Republicans will bail the Democrats out. Their dilemma is even greater.

There are a few possibilities. One is that none of this will ever happen, or, if it does happen, Republicans offer up a bill with no chance to pass in the Senate. Republicans have long said they won’t go to conference with the Senate. We’re hearing a lot of talk about how Republicans don’t trust Barack Obama to enforce the law, even though his administration deports hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants each year. There is every chance there would be a huge intra-party fight. Ted Cruz has already said this bill would cost Republicans their very real chance to win control of the U.S. Senate in November.

But if Republicans do back out, that, too, would become an issue in November. And so, let’s say the set of principles actually turns into a bill, one that could pass only with Democratic help, but one that sticks to the idea of a two-tier law — citizenship for a few.

You can hear the debates now. Democrats would get to charge Republicans with playing politics with basic civil rights and could say, if they vote for the bill, that they do so only under duress. And pro-reform Republicans, meanwhile, would talk about the immigrants who can stay here but who can’t become equal under the law. And the Tea Partiers would scream “amnesty for illegals” in front of every available cable-news TV camera, while blaming their fellow Republicans for caving to the Democrats.

There’s no way for Republicans to get a clean win out of this in the Latino community. But do they have any choice? The truth is, on this issue, it’s not only the immigrant community that’s in need of some kind of amnesty.

[ Image: “After the Harvest” by Rafael Edwards ]