Missing the Point on Immigration

Just what our aching national back requires at the moment, right? Another problem to address, another conundrum to solve.

We need to work at understanding something, nevertheless. "Illegal" immigration isn’t just "another problem." Immigration, whether in sunshine or dark of night as a sinister van disgorges human cargo, is a permanent reality in human affairs, the outcropping of an even larger reality.

That larger reality is this: A huge number of the world’s people want better lives for themselves and their families, and will find them where they can. Nor is there anything new here. Seekers, hopers and dreamers are hard-wired, it would seem, to take their hopes and dreams to the land of opportunity.

Not all seekers, hopers, dreamers, we learn in the 21st century, have names like Smith or Schmidt or Bellini or Cohen. That is the reality we have to recognize as Congress weighs schemes for immigration control, and as immigrants — most of them likely "illegal" — throng American streets to make their voices heard.

It is a confusing moment. It will not grow less confusing if we assume that all our representatives must do to address the confusion is slam shut some nonexistent gates. Life isn’t like that.

Last fall, the House voted for criminal penalties and fines for Americans who knowingly (whatever that means) hire those we used to call illegal aliens. It’s Prohibition revisited: ban ’em, fine ’em, jail ’em for doing what comes naturally.

At that, House members missed the point. Here’s how you really get rid of all those guys sneaking in to look for work. And you need not even build a fence. You nationalize private industry, inflate the currency, quadruple taxes and repeal the First Amendment. Right away, America’s appeal vanishes — not just for foreigners, but also for Americans. The inflow of peoples becomes an outflow. We hasten to get out of Dodge and off to some place where freedom’s sun still shines.

Don’t our dear, sweet, hard-working representatives in Washington (and elsewhere) get it? People want to come here because we’ve got a good thing going — and they hope to share in it. As one Laurentino Ramirez, a Los Angeles factory worker who is "illegal," told a local reporter this weekend: "I love this country as if it were my own, for the opportunities it has given me."

How many Laurentinos presently clamor to get into North Korea or Russia or Zimbabwe — or even the forests of Mexico? The number, I suggest, is exiguous. We’ve won, hands down, the loving cup for Best Place in Which to Thrive. The world’s only five-star country — that’s us.

There’s, of course, another side to it, which is that among our country’s blessings and attractions is a sort of cultural coherence based on common language and common commitment to the democratic proposition.

It behooves any nation to carefully oversee the process for incorporating newcomers into the family. We can be generous with our tenders of citizenship while providing for the thorough "Americanization" of all who apply. For instance, what in the name of Tom Jefferson is wrong with requiring, with rare exceptions, the exclusive use of English in American classrooms? Failing to emphasize English as a great national bond not only holds back foreign-born pupils, but also feeds the resentment of Americans who see their country as falling under the dominion of Those Who Come by Night. What do we need then? I am no expert. My own guess is that we need a bill — possibly like the one urged by Sens. John McCain and Edward Kennedy — that sets up a generous guest worker program, and allows future applications for citizenship on strict-ish terms, including fines, English proficiency and payment of back taxes.

I am unaware of agreeing with the senior senator from Massachusetts on anything save — maybe — the time of day. This go-round there may be something to learn from him. The McCain-Kennedy proposal takes account of human and national realities. That’s more than you can say for the House and the sad, old, bad tactics of lock-’em-up, kick-’em-out.