I used to have a lot of respect for William Kristol when it came to the issue of immigration.
In the 1990s, when California voters approved Proposition 187 to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants, Kristol was part of an intellectual cohort of conservatives who pushed back against the nastiness. Along with former Education Secretary William Bennett, former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp and others, Kristol argued that one reason the United States was an exceptional country was because of its immigrant tradition, even if immigrants were sometimes shortchanged in the process.
As the grandson of Jewish immigrants used to point out during the California debate, America may sometimes hurt immigrants but immigrants never hurt America.
Kristol also wasn't afraid to challenge fellow Republicans to stop demagoguing the issue and avoid the catnip of nativism.
These days, as editor of The Weekly Standard, the conservative thinker is demonstrating how the immigration issue has the magical ability to inspire smart people to say foolish things. He also serves as a good reminder that commentators on the East Coast -- and especially in Washington, where Kristol lives -- ought to talk less and listen more when it comes to something most of them clearly don't understand: the U.S.-Mexico border.
Kristol recently charged into the debate over what to do about the thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America crossing the border.
On ABC's This Week, Kristol insisted that passing the Senate immigration-reform bill, which would have given the undocumented the chance to earn legal status, would have produced "more of a magnet for people to come north."
The talking head doesn't know what he's talking about. First, the Senate bill wasn't an "amnesty" or a get-out-of-deportation-free card. That sort of thing comes with no strings attached, reminiscent of the lax immigration laws in place when Kristol's grandparents emigrated from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s. The Senate bill had qualifiers and penalties and hoops for the undocumented to jump through. As a result, it would have legalized only half of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Second, it's arrogant and presumptuous of Kristol -- and for that matter, Democrats -- to believe that thousands of children fleeing violence in Central America would have taken their cues from what Congress did or didn't do to fix immigration policy. They were coming regardless.
When the conversation shifted to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the program that lets undocumented youth avoid deportation with two-year work permits, Kristol wrongly referred to what is simply a policy change at the Department of Homeland Security as a full-blown executive order. Then he insisted that DACA had also contributed to the current crisis because children in Central America "saw that the previous generation of people who came in were amnestied, and they think they're going to be amnestied."
Again, there is no amnesty. And the child refugees don't qualify for DACA. If they really are, as Kristol thinks, such keen observers of the U.S. political process, shouldn't they know this?
Finally, Kristol drew a distinction between "legal immigration and illegal immigration" and said that "there are laws that should be enforced, in my humble opinion."
Really? There's nothing humble about Kristol's opinion. Let me remind him that it is his party which, for all its sanctimonious talk about enforcing the law, works to weaken and undermine laws that punish employers for hiring illegal immigrants. As for the distinction between those who come legally and those who don't, it's something that, not long ago, didn't worry Kristol so much.
During an appearance on Fox News Sunday in April 2006, while discussing President George W. Bush's push for comprehensive immigration reform and how some Republicans in Congress were pushing back with ugly language, Kristol declared: "I'm a liberal on immigration. I mean, I think the Bush approach is right ... Bush needs to step up and repudiate those House Republicans and their rhetoric, and make much more of a public case for his comprehensive immigration reform bill."
Then, noting that previous waves of immigrants who have been legalized have contributed to the U.S. economy, served in the military, and enriched the country, the commentator declared: "I am pro-immigration, and I am even soft on illegal immigration."
I like the old Kristol better.
Reach Ruben Navarrette is email@example.com.
The Washington Post Writers Group