Concern over surges of immigration by unfamiliar groups is a hardy perennial of American history: Scotch-Irish (1763-1775), Irish and Germans (1846-55), Ellis Island arrivals from Eastern and Southern Europe (1892-1914), Mexicans and other Latinos (1982-2007). That’s the list from Michael Barone, the political sage and immigration expert.

But there’s another phenomenon that comes, quite reliably, a generation later. “After the immigrants more or less blend in—a difficult process sometimes—Americans look back with affection,” Barone says. And they brag about the United States as “a nation of immigrants”—John F. Kennedy’s phrase—with a “melting pot” that assimilates newcomers as Americans.

You might call this the irony of American immigration, or merely a contradiction. But the result is very positive. Europe is different. There, immigrants are often welcomed as guest workers before Europeans conclude they are alien intruders and threats to Western civilization. To simplify the contrast, if Americans have a hate-love relationship with immigrants, Europeans have a love-hate connection.

Our history of gradually warming up to immigrants is worth examining as the congressional debate over reform of our defective immigration system proceeds. Why have Americans changed their view of immigrants so regularly and so dramatically? I think there are two reasons.

The first is that fears of how immigrants would behave, once they’ve settled in, have turned out to be mostly unwarranted. It was said Italians would never learn English. The Irish were accused of being “drunkards, brawlers, and incompetents,” Thomas Sowell writes in Ethnic America. Natives evacuated neighborhoods when Irish moved in.

Jews “inspired fears and dislike among many Americans,” Barone writes in The New Americans. “Many argued that this ‘race’ could never be assimilated into American life.” Chinese were “feared and hated as competitors by white workers,” Sowell says, and barred from citizenship. A century ago, California politicians demanded Japanese immigrants be kept out.

Now those fears and suspicions are gone. Italians, Irish, Jews, and Chinese—they’re all Americans. Japanese, German, Polish, and many other immigrants are fully assimilated citizens in good standing.

Yet today we hear that Latinos lack a strong work ethic. I see evidence to the contrary every day. There’s a gathering place a mile from my house in northern Virginia where scores of Latinos congregate at dawn in hopes of being hired as day laborers. They are eager for work.

The second reason is more fundamental. Indeed, it’s an indispensable part of what makes America exceptional. The idea of America as a haven not only for the poor and oppressed but also the skilled and ambitious is deeply ingrained in our national spirit.

Spurning immigrants, even if they’ve entered illegally, clashes with our identity. “The laws, culture, and traditions that our Anglo-Protestant founders gave us aren’t meant to exclude and divide,” writes Catholic archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles in his new book Immigration and the Next America. “They are meant to include and unite.” Nativism is “a heresy,” he says, “a perversion of the American creed.” Gomez, at 34, emigrated from Mexico.

America isn’t morally obligated to usher in immediately everyone who shows up at our borders. But we should recognize why they come. It’s more than a job they want. They want to decide their destiny in life. Their hopes are basically the same as those of earlier immigrants—our parents and ancestors.

One measure of America’s embrace of immigrants, after a grace period, is how frequently we talk about the success of the foreign-born, the Andrew Carnegies, the Henry Kissingers, the Hakeem Olajuwons. I still chuckle at the joke about an immigrant who was amazed at the hospitality at a big league baseball game. The crowd began a song by asking, “José, can you see?” To me, that’s affectionate, not demeaning.

The presence of 11 million residents who entered illegally complicates the immigration issue. Lost in the debate, however, is that the immigration system has incentivized illegal border crossing. That may sound like an excuse for breaking the law. In any case, it’s a fact.

In the 1950s and 1960s, hundreds of thousands of young Latinos came as guest workers to labor on farms and in orchards. The effect: Illegal immigration dwindled to near zero. The program ended in 1964. Now “family unification” is dominant. “Nearly two-thirds [of immigrant visas] go to relatives of existing residents, under an expansive definition of family preferences that includes not just spouses and minor children but parents, siblings and unmarried adult children,” Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

Young foreigners were left with a choice: Go to the end of the line and wait a decade, maybe two, before becoming a legal immigrant (assuming you’re qualified), or cross the border in violation of U.S. law. By far the stronger incentive was (and is) to enter illegally.

In Congress, everyone agrees the immigration system needs fixing, and Republicans would gain from leading the effort, as Marco Rubio has already done in the Senate. Enacting serious reform won’t give Republicans an instant boost, but it’s likely to stop the hemorrhaging of support among Latino voters. And if it gives the economy a lift, Republicans will deserve some of the credit.

Those are important political concerns, but not the main reason Republicans belong on the side of reform. The larger reason is it’s the right thing to do for the country. Reform that reflects the tradition of welcoming immigrants, then Americanizing them, is a worthy goal.

Republicans in the House have balked at the Senate reform bill. That obligates them to substitute their own version. Failing to offer an alternative and leaving the status quo in place would be an opportunity tragically missed.

Luis Gutiérrez, a leader of House Democrats on immigration, counts 195 Democrats ready to vote for a bill similar to the Senate’s. He says he’s talked to enough Republicans who privately are pro-reform to reach 218 votes, a majority.

But those Republicans are a minority of their caucus, and Speaker John Boehner is leery of a floor vote on a bill so few Republicans back. It’s up to him, as GOP leader, to fashion a compromise that a majority of Republicans and as many as 100 Democrats can support. Otherwise, we’re headed toward a setback for reform, for Republicans, and, worst of all, for the country.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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