A month ago, before most Americans had heard of Sonia Sotomayor, I predicted to a group of friends that Latinos would get either a Supreme Court justice or immigration reform -- but not both.
My theory: The political gurus in the Obama White House know that many Americans think the country does too much to accommodate the nation's largest minority as it is. Asking for more would seem gluttonous.
Still, with the administration promising to restart the debate on comprehensive immigration reform this year, advocates are searching for a new strategy to convince Americans that it's time to fix a broken system.
Some of what is being said -- sprinkled with research and results from focus groups -- is insightful. Other parts of the dialogue are frustrating.
For me, one of the hardest things to swallow is that so many enlightened and well-meaning advocates are so eager to run away from the race issue. They believe that once anyone on their side even hints that racism is part of the debate, the conversation is over.
And so, they say, the best way to increase the chances for reform is to avoid that kind of talk and concentrate on arguments that might persuade people. Talk about personal responsibility, they say, about how those who are in the country illegally must acknowledge wrongdoing, make amends, learn English and otherwise assimilate. And, they say, avoid making demands on U.S. citizens, most of whom don't accept that they have any responsibility for the current situation or to help correct it.
I'm in no hurry to let go of the racial angle. It's absolutely true that a big part of the anxiety that Americans feel about immigration fits a historical pattern. What worries people most is what they see as the inferior quality of immigrants coming ashore or crossing the border.
After all, that's one way racism typically manifests itself, through a sense of superiority. It also can come through fear or animosity.
You'll find all these variations in the modern immigration debate, which has taken on a discernibly anti-Latino, specifically anti-Mexican, flavor.
Some Americans dispute this and insist that race and ethnicity have nothing to do with concerns over illegal immigration. Rather, what has so many people upset, they claim, is that it is -- hello -- illegal.
Rubbish. If that were true, the debate wouldn't lapse so quickly into talk of limiting legal immigration as well. It wouldn't be the case that some of the most vocal organizations on the restrictionists' side have an agenda that includes limiting all immigration.
There wouldn't be such ugliness, as when conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan wrote in a recent book that the United States was better off when most of its immigrants came from Europe as opposed to Asia, Africa and Latin America.
We need to be honest about racism in the immigration debate: Acknowledging it allows Americans, the children of immigrants, to empathize with new arrivals who suffer many of the same trials as those who came before them.
THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE