Nobody wants to tackle immigration reform

Americans expect some degree of manipulation by Congress. Even so, the politicking over immigration reform has set a new standard in this election year. With lawmakers reinventing themselves and reformatting their positions, it's hard to keep track of who believes what.

Case in point: Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl were for comprehensive immigration reform. Now the Arizona Republicans favor the enforcement-only route.

The one thing that is clear is that members of Congress have focused most of their attention on marketing the message.

Case in point: Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a New York Democrat who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, recently told CNN: "The CHC wants a bill that secures our borders, creates a reliable employer verification system, unites families, requires immigrants to learn English, and mandates that immigrants pay their fair share." Did you forget something, Congresswoman? Does Velazquez think that by not mentioning what is perhaps the most controversial element of comprehensive immigration reform -- earned legal status for illegal immigrants -- voters will forget that legalization is at the center of the debate?

And now that Arizona has taken it upon itself to enforce federal immigration law with a statute that all but requires police to engage in racial and ethnic profiling as they go about ferreting out illegal immigrants, the situation in Congress has only become more complicated.

Before the Arizona law was signed, neither political party wanted to kick off the national immigration debate since -- in the case of each -- the issue divides the base. Republicans have factions that want cheap labor and others that want tighter borders. Democrats have elements that want to protect unions and others that want to provide earned legal status for the undocumented. An honest discussion would be uncomfortable for all concerned, so congressional leaders decided to put off the immigration debate until after the November elections.

But now that Arizona has foolishly rushed in, the gentlemen's agreement is off. On each side of the aisle, the base wants action from Washington. On the right, the law-and-order crowd wants to batten down the hatches. A group of House lawmakers, most of them Republican, has asked President Barack Obama to deploy the National Guard on the U.S.-Mexico border, claiming that the area has become a war zone. On the left, reform groups want the president to overcome his indifference and start pushing the immigration issue so that illegal immigrants in Arizona have a federal cloak of protection against the state law. (Last week, Obama told reporters that "there may not be an appetite" to overhaul the immigration system this year.)

The real debate in Congress is whether to have a debate at all, and when to have it. The Democrats who set the calendar can't decide whether to discuss immigration now, this summer, or again kick it down the road -- this time to the new Congress next year.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is himself up for re-election and trailing badly in the polls, has a simple answer: "Yes." A few weeks ago, Reid promised a largely Latino audience in Las Vegas that the Senate would tackle immigration reform after returning from spring recess. Then, back in Washington, Reid said the Senate wouldn't get to immigration reform before Memorial Day. Then came the Arizona law and Reid threatened to move the issue to the front burner, after financial reform and in place of climate change.

But after Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- the only leading Republican working with Democrats on the climate change issue -- protested Reid's decision by walking out of those talks, the majority leader reversed course again and pushed immigration reform back to the next place in line.

This likely means that Congress will continue discussing financial reform until Memorial Day, take up climate change in the days leading up to the Fourth of July, and put off immigration reform until after the midterm elections. If Reid loses his re-election bid, it will all be someone else's problem.

Should Republicans wind up with more seats in Congress, they'll use that power to pursue a restrictionist agenda. Then the prospects for immigration reform -- already weak -- will slip away again.

Navarrette's e-mail address is