You can count on Donald Trump to spark a conversation. Not necessarily an intelligent one but a conversation. His provocatively offensive anti-Mexican comments have energized a significant segment of the Republican right wing. Some polls now put Trump ahead of other contenders for the party's presidential nomination.
Everyone says these insults hurled at the growing Latino electorate will harm Republicans. Everyone is correct.
Trump can be expected to mar the upcoming Republican candidate debates with new incendiary remarks about immigrants. That will leave those sharing the stage a choice. They can make common cause with Trump and offend a large part of the general electorate. Or they can swat him down and displease the slice that calls the shots in many Republican primaries and caucuses.
Treated with derision, Trump could run as a third-party candidate, draining support from the eventual Republican nominee. Asked on CNN whether he'd consider a third-party candidacy, Trump said, "If I do the third-party thing, it would be, I think, very bad for the Republicans." He added, "Everyone asks me to do it."
That's not a "no".
Republican leaders have mainly themselves to blame. By rejecting a sensible plan to deal with illegal immigration — which is, yes, a problem — they have let the issue rot into a moldy pinata for the far right. The comprehensive plan for immigration reform was a solution for Republicans, nicely tied with a bow. It passed in the Senate, and the Republican National Committee called for its passage after the most recent general election.
The comprehensive plan would do two things. It would mandate a computerized system for serious enforcement of the immigration laws. And it would normalize the status of people who are here illegally because of lax enforcement in the past.
Americans have a right to an orderly and lawful immigration program. The lack of one has helped harden the lives of natives and documented immigrants with only a high school diploma or less. Honest labor economists have noted this fact, an expected outcome of forcing lower-skilled workers to compete with millions of undocumented foreigners accepting substandard pay and working conditions.
That doesn't make these people working here illegally bad folks. Trump is cracked in saying that Mexico sends its worst people. On the contrary, Mexico has been sending us its best — those fired with ambition and a desire for work. (If American authorities fail to expel criminal foreigners, even after multiple convictions, America's to blame.)
For this reason, the migration has been Mexico's loss. Mexico has not only exported superior workers but also lost those most likely to push for political reform. Some Mexican labor activists have noted this, arguing that mass emigration north has weakened their cause.
Low birthrates, a stronger Mexican economy and improved enforcement of the current law have sharply curbed the flow of undocumented workers from Mexico. Illegal immigration will soon become not a thorn in U.S.-Mexican relations but a common concern.
What better time to put order into the American immigration program. Foes of comprehensive reform should cut the looping tape about "those people" having broken laws in taking jobs here. These laws were held in contempt by American political and business interests at their highest levels. The new plan would restore respect. It would grow new teeth on enforcement while recognizing that many undocumented foreigners have become rooted in their American communities.
By removing immigration from the power-boil burner, Republicans would oblige their Donald Trumps to look elsewhere for inflammatory remarks. Publicity hounds will no doubt find replacements, but GOP leaders can hope the next wave of vile quotes will be of less consequence to them and the nation.
(A member of the Providence Journal editorial board, Froma Harrop writes a nationally syndicated column from that city. She has written for such diverse publications as The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar and Institutional Investor.)