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Opinion: Harry Reid’s immigration legacy put politics over country

He killed immigration reform to preserve Democratic control of the Senate

SHARE Opinion: Harry Reid’s immigration legacy put politics over country

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nev., discusses the results of Tuesday’s election during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006. Reid, the former Senate majority leader and Nevada’s longest-serving member of Congress, has died. He was 82.

Dennis Cook, Associated Press

When Harry Reid died this week, California Sen. Alex Padilla took to Twitter to share a few kind words about the former Democratic Senate Majority Leader.

“Harry Reid wasn’t just a giant of the Senate, he was a fighter for America’s working families,” Padilla tweeted. “He remains an inspiration to many, including myself.”

The son of Mexican immigrants, Padilla is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He knows a lot. Yet he doesn’t know much about Reid. Also, apparently, he is easily inspired.

The pride of Searchlight, Nevada, is being memorialized by fellow Democrats, and the left-leaning media, in terms of his legislative accomplishments with nary a mention of his greatest failure: immigration.

The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment declares: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States …”

Yet, in 1993, Reid introduced sinister legislation that would have countermanded the 14th Amendment and denied “birthright citizenship” to the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. Using language typically heard from Republicans, he argued that “no sane country” would allow such a practice.

The supposed “fighter for working families” — which include working immigrant families — refused to fight for them at critical moments between 2006 and 2013, when landing the right punch could have made a real difference in people’s lives.

The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 would have let the undocumented earn legal status, made it easier to admit highly skilled immigrants, and beefed up the border patrol. Although Reid did support the bill, which passed in the Senate, the GOP-controlled House killed it by failing to even consider it.

An amateur boxer in his youth, Reid is being eulogized as a fighter. Sure, he knew how to fight. But he was also good at hiding. He ducked the tough issues to protect fellow Senate Democrats from having to cast unpopular votes that could get them defeated by Republicans.

One of the toughest issues for Democrats is immigration. A debate about legalizing undocumented immigrants is likely to spark a civil war between Latinos who favor legal status, and blue-collar white union members who oppose it. Besides, Democrats worry that being the “amnesty party” will hurt their efforts to win over suburban white voters.

As Senate Majority Leader, Reid discreetly torpedoed a bipartisan 2007 bill, while craftily making it look like Republicans had killed it. This was the ultimate Jedi mind trick, and he pulled it off.

One person who was not fooled was the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Kennedy told historian James Sterling Young that the Senate’s failure to pass immigration reform in 2007 was largely the fault of top Senate Democrats who wanted to keep their distance from the bill while ensuring that Latino voters would punish Republicans for its failure.

“The leadership was not serious about doing it,” Kennedy told Young. He singled out Reid who, Kennedy said, “went on to manufacture a situation to antagonize Republicans, to try to blame them, so there’d be a blame game going on, and stop consideration of the bill.”

Reid also liked to play the race card. In 2010, he accused Republicans of being hostile to Latinos because “their skin’s a tone darker than ours.” He added a condescending remark about how he couldn’t imagine a circumstance where any Latino “could be a Republican.”

That same year, Reid — who had, months earlier, masterfully rounded up Democratic votes to pass the Affordable Care Act — couldn’t find 60 votes for a cloture motion on the DREAM Act. In the 11th hour, he suddenly lost five crucial votes from a group of conservative Senate Democrats who supposedly went rogue. The bill — which would have given undocumented young people a shot at U.S. citizenship — died on Reid’s watch.

Then, with another Jedi mind trick, the Senate Majority Leader put the blame on Republicans for killing the DREAM Act.

On second thought, Reid didn’t “fail” when it came to immigration. That assumes he wanted to fix a broken system and couldn’t. The evidence suggests that he did exactly what he set out to do: keep the system broken, and then blame someone else for breaking it.

Harry Reid was great at politics, which is to say he was also not great at telling the truth. Now, as we look back on his life, we need to tell the truth about him — however unflattering.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a Washington Post columnist.