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Gwen’s Take: Take a tablespoon of policy, add a dash of politics and mix well

The national immigration debate has risen, Lazarus-like, from the ash bin to which politics had consigned it.

As with issues ranging from death to taxes (to death taxes) we’ve been having some version of the same argument for years.

Nearly a decade ago, we tackled the topic on Washington Week when the Senate was preparing to pass an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws just before the 2006 Memorial Day holiday.

“What you see is a very solid majority forming for this bill,” Houston Chronicle reporter Gebe Martinez told us that night. “Of course, you know everyone is looking to see the train wreck down the road…down the tracks when it meets up with the House bill , which as we know House conservatives don’t like that, but it’s going forward.”

And, of course, House conservatives stopped it. But to anyone tempted to filter this current standoff through the 2014 filter of the Obama versus the GOP metric, it’s worth remembering that a Republican was president in 2006. And George W. Bush expended a fair amount of political capital making the case that immigration policy could be lawful and welcoming at the same time.

Immigration politics dogs leaders of every stripe. So the latest debate over whether unaccompanied minors who cross the border from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala should be allowed to stay in the United States is a familiar spectacle.

With children at the center of the revived debate, the dispute has become even more fraught. It’s one thing to paint migrants sneaking across the border as lawbreakers out to steal American jobs and resources. It’s a more delicate to appear to be shutting the door in children’s faces. The word “humanitarian” has suddenly been injected into the debate – by both President Obama and his opponents.

Texas Governor Rick Perry walked right into the tiny opening between this rock and hard place when he first announced he would not greet the president on his visit to Texas, then reversed himself and joined Mr. Obama aboard Marine One and at a roundtable of handpicked Obama supporters.

But he was not the only one in a tight spot. The president was, too. Fresh from a series of photo ops in Denver where, among other things, cameras caught him shaking hands with a person wearing a fake horse head, he was forced to explain why taking a detour to visit the border himself would be a useless photo op.

The tight spot for Republicans is the same one President Bush tried to sidestep. If the party’s future relies on demographic trends, resisting every effort to connect with the nation’s fastest-growing voting bloc could make things tough in 2014 and 2016.

And immigration reform advocates occupy their own spot on the tightrope – chafing against White House enforcement efforts (one leader branded the president “deporter-in-chief”) – while pushing for leniency, not only for the children crossing the border, but for the 11 million undocumented residents already here.

History shows that the path out of these tight spots seldom runs through the political process. Mostly because it’s hard to get anything done over all the screaming.

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