The end of one presidency and the start of another often spark strange behaviors in Washington, especially when spiked with the catnip of immigration.

Remember the Nannygates of years past when Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood (Clinton nominees for Attorney General) and Linda Chavez (Bush’s Secretary of Labor Designate) all fell from grace for housing or employing unauthorized foreign workers. Strangely, however, this year, Treasury nominee, Timothy Geithner, is defended for payroll tax violations by Republicans who whisper nary a word about his foreign housekeeper’s expired work permit.

Witness also George Bush last week speaking to a group of Texas reporters and regretting that he pushed his failed bid to privatize Social Security in 2004 rather than fight early and hard for immigration reform: “I’m very disappointed that [comprehensive immigration reform] didn’t pass . . . not for political standing or for Latinos, but because it was best for the country.” Mr. Bush, in today’s Farewell Address to the Nation, still seems to understand that America “is a nation that inspires immigrants to risk everything for the dream of freedom.”

Yet his Administration in the past fiscal year doubled federal prosecutions of immigrants rather than aggressively pursue serious crimes. As one unnamed prosecutor told the New York Times:

“’A lot of the guys I work with did nothing but the most complex cases — taking down multigenerational crime families, international crime, drug trafficking syndicates — you know, big fish,’ said the prosecutor, who did not want to be identified as criticizing the department he works for. ‘Now these folks are dealing with these improper entry and illegal reentry cases.’ He added, ‘It’s demoralizing for them, and us.’”

This same mania over immigration enforcement was also apparent at today’s confirmation hearing for Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, the Obama pick for Secretary of Homeland Security, an encounter that the Immigration Policy Center likened to a “tea party” that left precious time for serious discussion of the new Administration’s policies on comprehensive immigration reform:

“Serving more as a tea party than a rigorous cross examination, confirmation hearings are notoriously poor venues for deep policy discussions. The Governor has a wealth of relevant experience and a deep understanding of all of the issues about which the Senators questioned her. However, the hearing left little room for drilling down into the specifics of complex policy issues. While discussion of enforcement was plentiful, questions and (therefore answers) about what to do with 12 million people living without documentation in the U.S. were in short supply.”

As we approach the cool and collected era of “no drama” Obama, the new President should recognize that the problem of the vulnerable underclass of immigrants lacking legal status will not go away. The Migration Policy Institute reports that, despite the imploding U.S. economy, undocumented immigrants are staying put, notwithstanding anectdotal evidence to suggest that they’re homeward bound. The solution, then, is not to repeat the mistake of Bush’s temporizing on immigration. Just as the incoming President is reading history books to find ways to fix the economic mess we’re in, he should likewise be sure to remember recent history, or as George Santayana reminds us, we all may be condemned to repeat it.