ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- With all due respect to Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- and he deserves a lot of it for standing his ground on immigration -- the main problem that Republicans have in talking about the issue is not that some of them don't have a heart. It's that many of them don't seem to have an honest bone in their body.
Democrats are the same way. They would rather pander to labor unions than confront their allies with the truth that illegal immigrants do not threaten their members.
In January, I spoke at the inaugural conference of the Hispanic Leadership Network in Miami. Organized to build bridges between Hispanics and the center-right movement, the HLN could show America's largest minority that -- in the 2012 election -- it has options beyond choosing the lesser of two evils.
My message to the group at the time was that Republicans often mangle the immigration debate because they pander to racists in their base, propose simple solutions to a complex problem, and define the dynamic as "us vs. them" with Hispanics in the "them" category.
I almost forgot the most important thing that Republicans do wrong when talking about immigration: They shred their credibility by spreading half-truths and untruths. They never talk about how U.S. employers -- especially American households -- hire illegal immigrants, how those immigrants pay taxes and contribute to the U.S. economy by taking jobs few others would take, and how much of the angst about maintaining current levels of immigration has to do with who is doing the immigrating. More than racism or harsh rhetoric, it's the dishonesty that sticks in the craw of Latino voters.
This tendency to shade the truth was in evidence when three supposedly moderate Republican members of Congress appeared on an immigration panel at the HLN's second conference here in New Mexico. Reps. Raul Labrador of Idaho, Pete Sessions of Texas, and Francisco "Quico" Canseco of Texas all agreed that the Republican Party needed to tone down its rhetoric with regard to immigration or risk the possibility of further alienating a growing and important group of voters.
Every month, another 50,000 U.S.-born Hispanics turn 18 and become eligible to vote. The GOP had better hope these folks have short memories and don't hold grudges toward those who tried to turn their parents into scapegoats.
Some of what the panelists had to say was sensible; other parts made no sense.
Labrador, a former immigration lawyer who was born in Puerto Rico, was correct to point out that "Republicans have a message that appeals to the Hispanic community, but Hispanics don't feel welcomed in the party."
But he was dishonest when he accused President Barack Obama of trying to "implement the Dream Act by fiat"; all the administration did was promise to review deportation cases that might involve college students.
Sessions, who represents a largely Hispanic district near Dallas, was right to insist that "the Republican Party must learn to talk about immigration in a way that recognizes that we're dealing with the lives of people who are making America stronger and find a way to give legal status."
But he was dishonest to play up fears of drug dealers along the U.S.-Mexico border without making it clear that it is Americans who buy the drugs that keep the cartels in business.
Canseco, the son of Mexican immigrants from the state of Nuevo Leon, was correct to note that Americans "need to know why it is that people come here" and separate "those who want to work from those who want to do ill to this country." He skipped the half-truths and instead offered the most candid line of the forum when he said: "We have a broken system because we have wanted it broken."
That's certainly true. For generations, the United States has needed a steady flow of workers, and it left the back door ajar so that able-bodied laborers from the south could enter with ease.
It was refreshing to hear a member of Congress -- in this case, a freshman -- come clean about why Americans have an immigration "problem" in the first place. It makes you wonder what else our lawmakers in Washington know about this issue, and the realities surrounding it, that they're not saying publicly.
C'mon, folks, be honest.
Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.