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Originally published Saturday, August 10, 2013 at 4:05 PM

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Republicans are of two minds on immigration reform

The GOP is schizophrenic on illegal immigration, writes Froma Harrop. One side wants to block all paths to citizenship, the other covets cheap labor.

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On immigration, the Republican Party is trapped in two trains of thought, each speeding along the wrong track. At the tea-party end, there’s absolute resistance to normalizing the status of illegal immigrants. On the cheap-labor side, there’s this big push to admit as many unskilled immigrants as possible.

The first view, that putting millions of illegal immigrants on the path to citizenship rewards lawbreakers, is unhelpful. It is true that they broke the law by taking jobs in the United States. It is also true that their employers broke the law in hiring them. An honest gathering of all the lawbreakers would make for an interesting roundup.

The building of this 11-million-strong population of undocumented workers had another player — the federal government. Until Barack Obama assumed office, no president took enforcing the ban on hiring illegal workers very seriously. Also making the job difficult is the loophole letting employers accept any reasonably good-looking Social Security card as proof of right to work here. Social Security cards are often stolen, and plausible ones are easy to counterfeit.

The proposed reforms would end all that. Companies would have to send the information to a central database confirming a prospective hire’s right to work here. Tougher sanctions, meanwhile, would motivate employers to follow the law.

Without passage of the immigration reforms, none of this will occur. The Swiss cheese system by which undocumented workers and their employers slip through the law will remain. If you really want to end illegal immigration, the reforms offer the only reliable route. And politically they won’t happen if there’s no path to citizenship.

This is pretty obvious, but in many cases, animus toward Latinos trumps even self-interest. Iowa Rep. Steve King has built quite a repertory of ethnic insults, most recently referring to border crossers’ calves as “the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana.”

The other Republican track wants lots and lots of legal, low-skilled workers to ensure that restaurants, hotels and other service businesses need never raise their wages. Though the hourly pay of cooks and hotel maids is actually falling, there can never be “low-enough” for the cheap-labor rump of the Republican Party.

The bill that passed the Senate provides for a new class of visas for up to 200,000 low-skilled workers. That number was reached through a delicate compromise with labor, which understandably doesn’t like the idea.

But Republican Reps. Ted Poe of Texas and Raul Labrador of Idaho want more, many more, low-skilled workers. They’re proposing about 400,000 visas a year. This pleases the American Hotel and Lodging Association — to an extent.

“Ideally, there should be no cap,” association official Shawn McBurney told The Wall Street Journal. “It should be driven by the market.”

By market, McBurney presumably means not the United States labor market, but the Western Hemispheric labor market. Hey, throw in the other hemisphere, too.

Labrador plays an interesting double game — on one hand breathing fire against the path to citizenship; on the other, opening a wide highway for imported cheap labor. Perhaps there’s some consistency here: Expanding the low-skilled visa program and keeping illegal immigrants vulnerable both depress wages.

Sympathy goes to that minority of Republicans who understand what it takes to get immigration reform passed and the stakes in not succeeding. They include Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. Under assault by their party’s radical wings, these lawmakers deserve an extra star for bravery.

Of course, demonizing Latinos while ignoring the economic interests of all blue-collar workers is also not great politics. A Republican Party unable to change these directions is chugging into oblivion.

© , The Providence Journal Co.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is fharrop@projo.com. On Twitter @fromaharrop

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