Shameful immigration rhetoric goes over the line

Turning a much-needed national conversation on immigration into a debate over who can propose the highest fence, deport the most people here illegally or hire the largest number of border patrol agents doesn’t advance a smart solution to this vexing issue.

But it again seems to be where we’re headed, thanks to the arms race of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. It is shameful. This tack does a disservice to the many voters, regardless of party, who desire sensible controls on immigration. They will see no progress toward that goal until the conversation turns to serious concepts rather than inflammatory slogans.

The driving force behind the rhetorical tide is Donald Trump. Most of his campaign promises are broad and theoretical — if he’s elected, things will be “great.” But on immigration, he’s been more specific, including calling Mexican immigrants here illegally rapists and criminals and, this week, releasing a reform plan that is mostly unworkable.

But instead of pointing out the weaknesses in Trump’s plan, like ending constitutionally guaranteed birthright citizenship or impounding all money Mexicans here illegally send to their home country, many of his rival GOP candidates have ratcheted up their own tough talk and border fence promises. Jeb Bush is a notable, commendable exception.

Just two years ago, the conversation on immigration reform had turned serious, and a bipartisan bill passed the Senate. It included improved border security and crackdowns on overstayed visas, as well as a system of verifying the immigrant status of workers that would have made it much harder to hire employees in the country illegally, stopping the promise of income that draws them here so inexorably. It says a lot about Republican Party politics that one of the bill’s authors, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a GOP presidential contender, has since come out against the bill to salvage his standing with the core of his party.

Clearly, a sophisticated conversation on immigration has to concede rational points on both sides. Immigrants who have committed felonies should not be allowed to repeatedly enter the United States. That this is rare doesn’t change the fact that it’s unacceptable. Cities can’t simply ignore federal laws on immigration. And employers can’t be allowed to hire workers here illegally, profiting from their labors and encouraging their illegal entry.

But we’re not sending back 11 million people who have woven themselves into the fabric of our nation. We’re not repealing the 14th Amendment. We’re not stanching the flow of new immigrants with a tall wall when most of those here illegally entered legally and overstayed their visas. We’re not becoming a land that makes it hard for foreigners to visit. And we will not get anywhere by confusing acceptable concerns about our immigration system with xenophobic fears about Hispanic immigrants.

Most of the Republican field is fighting over who can promise the biggest, baddest wall and send home the most people. What we need to hear, instead, are sensible, comprehensive immigration plans that deal with the justified concerns on all sides of the argument.