Ruben Navarrette Jr.

The immigration debate is a riddle. And if you think Washington D.C. has the answer, you’re misreading the clues.

The U.S. Constitution relies on Congress “to establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization.” The Founders took a dangerous turn when they put the onus for setting immigration policy in the hands of the federal government.

Take it from someone who has covered immigration for 30 years, and from three different states on the U.S.-Mexico border: The nation’s capital is the last place we’re going to find a solution to what some call the “immigration problem.”

Correction. From where I’m sitting — 2,685 miles away in the Southwest, an hour’s drive from the U.S.-Mexico border — immigration isn’t a problem. It’s a chance for renewal. Immigrants are a vaccine that infuses the American spirit with optimism, ingenuity, and a killer work ethic. A constant stream of newcomers inoculates us from the viruses of complacency, negativity and entitlement.

Politicians — Democrats and Republicans alike — love the simple idea of erecting barriers on the border. But the forces that drive immigration to the United States can’t be fixed with cement and barbed wire.

Demand for illegal immigrant labor hits close to home. The American household is the largest employer of illegal immigrants, hiring everything from gardeners to housekeepers to elderly care providers. At the same time, American parents have now raised three generations (Generation X, Millennials, Generation Z) that have — the research shows — little interest in summer jobs, after school jobs, even doing chores around the house.

Jobs need doing. If our kids won’t do them, someone else will. It’s also possible that — by hiring nannies and cooks — we’re teaching our children that their only job is to be cared for and pampered.

President Biden can’t teach Americans to be better parents who demand more from their children. He can’t give young people a stronger work ethic so they stop losing jobs to immigrants who come here to complete tasks that American teenagers, and twenty-somethings, won’t do.

But what Biden can do is what he did this week in his first presidential address to a joint session of Congress. He can turn up the heat and push Congress to quit stalling and work out a middle-of-the-road compromise on immigration that gives each party some of what it needs but not everything it wants.

“Immigration has always been essential to America,” Biden said during his remarks Wednesday night. “Let’s end our exhausting war over immigration. For more than 30 years, politicians have talked about immigration reform and done nothing about it. It’s time to fix it.”

Such pretty words. They’d be even more inspiring if not spoken by the guy who voted for the 2006 Secure Fence Act in the Senate, stood by as vice president as more than 5 million people were removed or returned, and co-signed former President Donald Trump’s meager 15,000-person annual cap on refugees as president.

The supposedly kinder and gentler Joe Biden has his own immigration reform bill, which he sent over to Congress during the first week of his presidency.

The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 is better than nothing, but it’s still flawed. There’s nothing about a tamper-proof identification card, employer sanctions, or changing the rules by which legal immigrants are admitted so that we put less emphasis on family reunification and more on the needs of our workforce.

And instead of pushing citizenship — which drives Republicans away from the table because all they hear is “voting” — Biden should just give the undocumented what they want as opposed to what Democrats want for them: protection against deportation, a driver’s license so they can get to work, and freedom to travel across borders.

Where did I hear that? Not in Washington. It’s what illegal immigrants tell me out here in the real world when I ask — and listen. As you may have noticed, politicians are not good at listening. They’re too busy talking.

And nowhere is there more talk and less action than in Washington.

The city is awash with cash that flows to pro-immigration groups and anti-immigration groups, and neither group wants the gravy train to stop.

And sadly, even with more than 20,000 migrant children and teenagers in U.S. custody — a fact left out of Biden’s speech — the welfare of the poor and desperate is the last thing on anyone’s mind in Washington.

Want to solve the immigration “problem”? Splendid. Let’s start by demanding more from the people who are only making the situation worse.

The real “root causes” of this crisis aren’t south of the border. They’re east of the Potomac.

Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His podcast, “Ruben in the Center, “ is available through every podcast app.

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