They said it in 2000, they said it in 2004, and they’re saying it for 2006: The election is for Democrats to lose. The Democrats blew it in 2000 and 2004, and candidate Francine Busby has shown them how to lose it this year.

Four days before San Diego’s special election to fill an empty House seat, polls put Democrat Busby in a dead heat with Republican Brian Bilbray. Then she said to a largely Latino audience: “You can all help. You don’t need papers for voting.” At that point, it was all over for Busby and the Democrats’ chance to score an important victory.

Which leads to some pointed questions for the Democratic Party: Is anybody home? Didn’t someone coach Busby on how to handle the hot issue of illegal immigration? Does the Democratic Party have an intelligent being who can explain to the others that illegal immigration is their concern, too?

I’m not talking about the issue just in terms of winning elections, but also in terms of serving core Democratic constituencies hurt by illegal immigration. For example, poor blacks, working-class people, low-skilled legal immigrants, taxpayers buckling under the cost of providing services to illegals, liberal employers who offer good wages and benefits but are undercut by competitors who employ illegal aliens.

Rahm Emanuel, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, played down the import of Busby’s loss for the Democrats’ hopes in November. Waving off the immigration issue, he said, “Not every district is going to be on the border of Mexico.”

I have news for him. Not every district is on the border with Mexico, but just about every district feels like it is. New Jersey, for example, is almost a continent away from Tijuana, but its hospitals lose $200 million a year providing free care for illegal aliens. Those immigrants are not all, or even mostly, from Mexico, of course. They can be from Colombia, the Dominican Republican or elsewhere in Latin America. Some are from Asia or Europe.

The point is, the broken border is not just with Mexico, but all around us.

The tragedy for the party — and the nation — is that Democrats could do a much better job than Republicans controlling illegal immigration. That’s because Democrats are not afraid to do the only thing that could stop it, which is go after the companies that employ undocumented workers.

President Bush won’t do it. Providing cheap labor to corporate America is his chief economic policy. His administration’s failure to fine employers who hire undocumented workers is quite deliberate. And his big military show on the southern border is designed to distract from that fact.

Most Hispanics support steps to slow illegal immigration, as long as the efforts don’t seem directed against them. By moving the issue away from the Mexican border and into the workplace, Democrats could address the problem without offending many Latinos.

It’s good that most Democrats support strengthening employer sanctions. But they should also steer clear of the Bush plan to flood America’s labor market with “guest workers” — a key element in the Kennedy-McCain immigration bill that Democrats have praised so heartily. It would have the effect of doubling the number of new low-skilled immigrants over the next 20 years, to 40 million, with devastating consequences for the most vulnerable American workers.

So here we have this election in San Diego, where the Republican is condemning Bush’s cheap-labor plan and the Democrat is supporting it. Given Francine Busby’s unpopular position, it was a miracle that she ran as close a race as she did. Calling on illegal immigrants to sneak into the polls and vote for her only crowned her pile of mistakes.

For Democrats, there’s no sugarcoating Busby’s defeat. The only good that could come of it is a lesson: The Democrats have got to get straight on illegal immigration.