Immigration reform as a political issue has been lost as we scream at each other endlessly over health care, who to blame for high unemployment, and the relative virtues and vices of Sarah Palin and President Obama.

Then along comes Lou Dobbs.

Dobbs recently “retired” from CNN as the result of a large-scale effort by Latino groups to have him dumped for his anti-immigrant politics. From his recent Telemundo interview, we find that he once claimed that illegal immigrants were bringing leprosy into the United States. How appropriate, given that Dobbs made his name by helping to transform undocumented immigrants into the shunned, rejected and outcast “lepers” of our society.

However, in this same interview Dobbs now claims to be a convert to comprehensive reform. He seems to have had a Damascus Road experience on the way to the unemployment line.

It’s very tempting to mock and loathe Dobbs. He has not been a good man in recent years. His change of heart is almost certainly motivated by brazen political calculation: Race-baiting was a good way to make a living but now it’s not.

Giving in to such temptation, while understandable, would be a mistake. Dobbs could represent an opportunity and perhaps even a tipping point in the immigration debate. He is certainly a way to get the cause of comprehensive reform back in the news.

Advocates of comprehensive reform need help. The Republicans are almost certainly going to win a substantial number of seats in the midterm elections. If Obama is going to sign a comprehensive reform bill, Congress will have to push it through next year. This is going to be incredibly hard for a Democratic Congress that is weary from a noble but bloody health-care struggle – and scared to death in an election year.

Could Dobbs be just what undocumented immigrants need? He has the star power to get immigration back on the nation’s agenda. The attitude toward Dobbs should be at once Christian and Reaganesque: forgive, and trust but verify.

In some ways, the landscape for comprehensive reform has changed for the better since the Senate immigration bill was filibustered in 2007. As a result of high unemployment and tougher enforcement, the number of border crossings and the overall number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has dropped. The argument that “this is no time to help immigrants” is demonstrably false.

Immigration has proven to be an effect rather than a cause of our employment levels: During the boom years, immigration went up; now it’s going down. Thus, the need to “get tough” seems less dire, and the possibility of a comprehensive approach might potentially be more real than we would initially assume. Also, compared to health care and the stimulus package, immigration reform is extremely cheap.

Dobbs is very smart, talented and could be a real asset in the push for comprehensive reform. Nobody believes that his motivations are pure, but the state of Dobbs’ soul is irrelevant to the passage of a reform bill.

Lyndon Johnson was long a segregationist before pushing through civil rights legislation that had failed under more sincere champions of justice. Mikhail Gorbachev was, of course, a communist long before he helped bring about the end of the Cold War and communism itself. Even George Wallace became a champion of progressive legislation in Alabama in the years after he was shot. And only Nixon could go to China.

Dobbs wants to use Latinos to restart his career. They should consent to such manipulation, on the condition that they get to use him back. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

Sean McKenzie, a Methodist, teaches high school in Calhoun, Ga.

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