Breaking news: There’s been a sighting of the Compassionate Conservative.

You remember that guy, George W. Bush by name. Years before he pronounced himself “the decider,” he was the “uniter not a divider” (say “that” three times fast!), who promised to govern with benevolent concern for society’s less fortunate. A compassionate conservative, he said, acknowledging by implication that conservatives had not previously distinguished themselves by their big-heartedness.

Then Bush was selected president, and the compassion went out of his conservatism like air from a leaky tire.

That’s what makes one of the president’s remarks in a recent speech about immigration a little surprising. “I know this is an emotional debate,” he told the audience. “But one thing we cannot lose sight of is that we’re talking about human beings, decent human beings that need to be treated with respect.”

Bush was speaking in Orange County, Calif., a bastion of conservative politics. He was in the O.C. to address a dispute over immigration that has recently cleaved the conservative ranks.

On the one side is – to quote a sign that greeted the president – the “Go back to Mexico” crowd, some of whom seem to feel we need to round up every illegal immigrant and bus them immediately to the border. Others on that side suggest that if we just make things hard enough for them here – deny them employment and benefits – those immigrants will happily run back across that border by themselves.

On the other side are those like the president, who feel that it would make more sense to let longtime illegals pay fines and back taxes and learn English in exchange for guest-worker status or even citizenship.

For the record, I agree with the president. The notion of mass deportations is a xenophobic joke. It is also a logistical nightmare (how do you move an estimated 11 million people, even assuming they wanted to go?) and an emotional time bomb (picture a distraught, U.S.-born child, reaching out for the Mexican mother who is being taken away from her by federal authorities. Now multiply that by 11 million).

As for the idea that if you make life hard enough here, illegal immigrants will happily return where they come from: I think most of us would agree that if we had to be unemployed, poor and without benefits, we’d still rather be in this country than any other.

No, the president has it right. That said, though, I am stopped by his reminder – his “compassionate” reminder – that the immigration debate is a debate about human beings. After all, since Richard Nixon’s infamous “Southern strategy” of the late 60s, his party has sought, won and retained power largely by encouraging voters to ignore and deny the humanity of people who were not like them.

In Nixon’s era, it was blacks. In Ronald Reagan’s era, it was blacks. And yes, in George H.W. Bush’s era – call for Willie Horton – it was blacks again. Bush the younger has added a new wrinkle: gays. Indeed, the Grand Old Party has some Middle Americans so afeared that gays are coming to take their children away that one imagines the poor folks hunkered down with a shotgun, ready to shoot at the first sight of a rainbow bumper sticker.

Marginalized minorities make convenient villains and scapegoats precisely because they are so easy to demonize and objectify. When “gay” is just a concept, or “black” only an abstract, it becomes easier to justify grotesque mistreatment. And when “illegal alien” is no more than an anonymous caricature, one becomes more comfortable calling for immigration measures whose unworkability is exceeded only by their pettiness.

So one is heartened, albeit mystified, by the president’s earnest reminder that illegal aliens have faces. One only wishes his party had not done so much over the years to make that reminder necessary.

We’re dealing with human beings, he says. For the record, we always were.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His e-mail address is: [email protected]