- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

Two schools of thought about illegal immigration have collided in Congress this week:

On one side of the issue are those who think the solution to the problem is simple: Just enforce the law. Lock ‘em up, load ‘em up and ship ‘em out. Or as H.L. Mencken put it, “There is always an easy solution to every … problem — neat, plausible and wrong.”

It’s easy enough for politicians to propose simple, and simply wrong, solutions. Colorado’s Tom Tancredo keeps demanding that the law be enforced — to great applause. Lots of Americans may be all for sending these illegal immigrants back where they came from. But that’s only until we want our houses built, dishes washed, children watched, fruits and vegetables picked, chickens plucked and the economy revved up in general. Or until we notice that these people are people, fellow human beings, instead of scary illegal aliens. That’s when sanity sets in.

There’s no denying that the country’s immigration system is broken and needs fixing. It may be impossible to make our borders airtight after all these years of thorough neglect, but if a country’s going to have a border, then it ought to have a border. Beefing up Customs and the Border Patrol would be a good start, and so would fortifying more of the border.

But even with a total of more than 250 remote cameras and 10,500 dug-in automatic sensors, the Government Accountability Office estimates that only 4 percent of the country’s combined northern and southern borders can be monitored. Building a 2,000-mile wall along the Mexican border alone would cost billions. Just erecting a 14-mile barrier in the vicinity of San Diego ran $70 million.

Nor would such a wall/barrier prevent illegals from using the tunnels and ladders they do now. Call out the troops? Well, the armed forces of the United States are otherwise engaged at the moment, specifically in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

In short, the whole idea that we can just snap our fingers, build a wall, sound a bugle call and this problem would go away is… nuts. It makes a great talking point but not much sense.

The other side of this debate is represented by senators like Republicans John McCain and Arlen Specter, who would try to legalize those immigrants now here illegally, but not give them a free ride, aka Amnesty.

To quote Mr. Specter, “These undocumented aliens are going to have to pay a fine. They’re going to have to work for six years to be on the citizenship path. They’re going to have to go through a criminal background check…. They’re not going to go ahead of people who have been waiting in line for citizenship. They’re going to go to the end of the line….” Fair enough.

In short, to get legal status, these folks would have to show some interest in getting right with the law and becoming Americanized in general. Classes in English, in citizenship, and a record of good behavior and steady employment need to be part of any sensible immigration bill.

What’s needed is a way to bring all these folks out from the shadows, educate their children and devise a clearly marked route for them to become good citizens. Anything less would be a terrible waste of not just an economic asset but a great human resource.

Rather than have these two different approaches to illegal immigration battle it out, why not adopt the most sensible aspects of both? Yes, beef up the border. But also open the gates of opportunity. It’s no accident that the periods of our greatest national growth and prosperity have coincided with those of the greatest immigration.

But immigration needs to be an orderly, open, rational process — and a legal one. Instead, an underground economy and a new underclass have been allowed to develop outside the law. The whole system needs to be brought into the light of law and reason. It can be done.

We’ve done it before, time and again. It’s almost the story of America. We can do it again if we resolve to solve the problem, not just fume about it. Or would that be unspeakably sensible?

Here’s this week’s worst idea: Make it a crime for anybody to help an illegal alien — like the churches who run soup kitchens or the folks who pick up those exhausted, dehydrated border-crashers who have lost their way in the Sonoran Desert and are about to die by the side of the road.

One thing this country and its conscience don’t need is a Bad Samaritan law. But H.R. 4437 could make it a crime to feed the hungry, give succor to the desperate and generally do what we can to help these strangers in a strange land. It’s the kind of proposal that violates just about every principle in the Book.

Its sponsors, GOP Reps. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Peter King of New York, need to rethink their whole, punitive approach. Or just pray over it. If they did, surely they’d drop it. Or at least rephrase it so it’s clear they don’t want to make a criminal of anyone who loves his neighbor as himself.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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