jon ralston:

An immigration push Reid regrets

Wed, Jul 21, 2010 (2:01 a.m.)

The senator was clearly incensed about illegal immigration when he took to the floor, bemoaning “a decade of wretched excess and, true to form, immigration was taken to excess as well.”

The solution: “Paring back immigration to more manageable levels would necessitate some long-overdue changes in the way immigrants are selected,” the senator argued as he introduced a bill to deny citizenship to children of illegal immigrants and drastically reduce legal immigration. “The ever-growing pressure to expand immigration levels is a byproduct of a system that grants immigration preferences to extended family members.”

So which Republican made these comments, which would outrage many Democrats, on the Senate floor? No Republican at all. In fact, those comments were made by a Democrat by the name of Harry Reid.

I now pause for jaws to drop on both sides of the political spectrum.

But what is even more astonishing about these comments is they were made on Aug. 4, 1993, less than a year into his second term, long before Reid became the Senate Democratic leader. This story has a remarkable twist, too — I’ll get to it — that proves to me the enduring unpredictability of Nevada politics and how even, after nearly a quarter-century of covering this protean world, I am still surprised by what I discover.

I had not recalled this Reid speech but was reminded of it this week by none other than Tom Tancredo, the former Colorado Republican congressman and anti-illegal immigration zealot. Writing in the conservative publication Human Events, under the headline, “Bring Back the Old Harry Reid,” Tancredo longed for the halcyon days of 1993 when Reid wanted to be as punitive as he does.

Tancredo wrote almost rapturously of Reid’s Immigration Stabilization Act, recalling it would have “ended birthright citizenship to the children of illegal aliens, increased border security, created new sanctions against illegal aliens and their employers, and barred illegal aliens from receiving government benefits.”

Now, Tancredo lamented, Reid supports “amnesty,” a word that has lost all meaning in the hot-button debate over illegal immigration sure to occur again if Reid, as he recently said on “Face to Face,” can corral a couple of Republicans to vote for his current version of comprehensive immigration reform.

I am sure Tancredo — and many others — will believe that Reid’s change of heart has been occasioned by his rise to the Democratic leadership and the dramatic increase since 1993 in Nevada’s Hispanic population. But one speech Tancredo surely is not aware of — nor was I until I came across it — was Reid’s startling repudiation of his 1993 bill four years ago. Some excerpts:

“I wish to switch a little bit here and talk about something that is extremely personal to me. I have been a legislator for a long time …I don’t want this to be true confessions, but I want to relate to the Senate that the biggest mistake I ever made, the largest error I ever made was 15 or 18 years ago …A group of people came and talked to us and convinced us that the thing to do would be to close the borders between Mexico and the United States; in effect, stop people from coming across our borders to the United States. This period of time for which I am so apologetic — to my family, mostly — lasted about a week or two. I introduced legislation. My little wife is 5 feet tall. We have been together for soon to be 50 years. As I said here on the floor a few days ago, her father was born in Russia. He was run out of Russia. His name was Goldfarb, his family. They were Jewish. My wife heard that I had done this. She does not interfere with my legislation. Only when I ask her does she get involved in what I am doing. I didn’t ask her about this. She, in effect, said: I can’t believe that you have done it. But I had done it.”

Reid then talked about how, shortly thereafter, he was assailed at a town-hall meeting on his bill by Hispanic friends, and added, “I have done everything since that meeting in Las Vegas, in conversation with my wife, to undo my embarrassment.”

Some will say Reid was against amnesty before he was for it. Others will discount any notion Reid’s 2006 explanation was sincere. And still others will wonder how Reid could have been so easily persuaded in 1993 to introduce a measure he would bitterly oppose today.

I hope the majority leader can get a bill to the floor this year — if only to hear just what his remarks might be now.

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