We treat illegal immigration in the same way we deal with gays in the military: don’t ask, don’t tell.

The immigration bill drafted by Sens. Edward Kennedy and John McCain and supported by President Bush is a flawed effort to end the hypocrisy. As it churns through the Senate, the measure’s failings increasingly outweigh the benefits. But just as gays and lesbians should be able to serve in the armed forces without lying about their sexual orientation, immigrants who sneaked into the country illegally should be allowed citizenship.

There should be conditions — paying a reasonable fine for entering the country illegally, learning English — plus some other humane requirements to be determined in the sausage-making process of passing a bill in Congress. But the immigrants are here. They’re working. We need them. We are a nation of immigrants. Why shouldn’t this latest crop become citizens?

I know it’s hard for many to accept this. In Los Angeles, where I live, the checkers and baggers at the market talk to each other in Spanish and to me in English. On some parts of a street near me, Farsi is the dominant language. I’ve been at restaurants in Koreatown where I am the only person who doesn’t speak Korean.

The polyglot urban and suburban life in immigrant-heavy communities angers and frightens many. As blogger Mickey Kaus, who opposes the immigration bill, wrote, “… the majority of the new illegals are from one country, Mexico — a nation with a not-implausible claim on large chunks of the Southwestern U.S. For the first time, a neighboring country will have a continuing hold on the loyalties — and language — of a majority of residents in some states, with the potential for Quebec-like problems, and worse, down the road.”

However, for every older immigrant who doesn’t speak English or has trouble with the language, there is probably a child or grandchild who speaks it well.

The process is messy and sometimes dangerous. I covered the 1992 Los Angeles riot, where it was African Americans vs. Koreans vs. Latinos vs. whites. But amid the fire and destruction, I remember the hands of African American church members and nearby Latino residents joined together on garden hoses, fighting fires when the fire department didn’t show up.

We pro-immigrant people draw hope from such stories. But we’ll probably be drowned out as the presidential campaign gets hot. California, with a primary on Feb. 5, will be at the heart of the debate.

In the Republican primary, Sen. McCain, as the co-author of the immigration bill, will absorb a huge attack on right-wing talk radio and blogs. The Republican right is dead set against any legalization for the 10 million to 12 million illegals living in the United States. To the right, legalization is amnesty. But can you conceive of that many people rounded up and deported? Will it be done in a day, in a week, in a month? And what about children who are citizens by birth?

Perhaps the anti-immigrant rhetoric will help Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney in the Republican primary, but there is an anti-Hispanic tone to it that will hurt the party in the fall. Republican national chairman and immigration bill co-author Sen. Mel Martinez, himself an immigrant, said, “I think we [Republicans] paid a political price in the last election cycle [by losing Hispanic votes]. If we get the same type of Hispanic support in the next election cycle that we did in the last, there is no way we could elect a Republican president.”

This should be a great opportunity for the Democrats, but they are divided.

For example, unions representing garment, hotel, restaurant, healthcare and maintenance workers support Senate passage of a bill they believe is imperfect, hoping for improvement in a Senate-House conference committee. The AFL-CIO, with its industrial and craft unions, opposes provisions that would allow large numbers of low-wage guest workers into the country.

Each amendment to the immigration bill seems to make it worse. Opponents on the left and right are loading it up with provisions designed to kill the measure. Its road to citizenship is almost impossible to traverse, requiring immigrants to return to their home countries and pay huge fines in order to apply for citizenship. Families would be cruelly divided.

Polls are contradictory. They show Americans favor stronger border controls and want illegal immigration to stop. A New York Times/CBS poll in May reported that 69 percent believe illegal immigrants should be prosecuted and deported. But the same poll said 67 percent believe they should be allowed to apply for a four-year visa, allowing them to stay in the country if they pay a $5,000 fine, have a work record and pass a background check. This approval for beginning a long path to citizenship is comparable to the findings of a later Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll.

These polls indicate the existence of a broad center in favor of a long and difficult path to citizenship. The issue is just how difficult the path should be.

Sen. Kennedy is trying to steer the bill toward that center, just as his late brothers did with civil rights and the Vietnam War during earlier difficult periods in our nation’s history.

Kennedy bowed to the right when he said the bill “is about broken borders and national security.” But he also said “it is much more than that. If this nation stands for anything, it stands for progress and it stands for opportunity.”

And it does not stand for the hypocrisy of benefiting from the labor of millions of illegal immigrants while denying them the chance to become citizens.

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