Friday, July 6, 2007

I didn’t much like the immigration bill that just stalled in the U.S. Senate. In fact, I disliked it. Intensely. And I was for it. You can imagine how the folks who were against it felt about the bill.

You may not have been crazy about it, either, if for reasons different and even opposite from mine. It was the kind of bill that is advertised as a Grand Bargain, by which is meant another shoddy compromise with something to offend everybody. My own list of objections was starting to get as long and involved as the bill itself. To name just a couple of the big ones:

c The bill was mercenary, not family-friendly. It replaced family connections as a basis for gaining entrance to the United States with a point system weighted heavily in favor of those who came bringing skills the economy needs, or rather that the government says the economy needs. Those needs wouldn’t be determined by private companies or individual employers but mainly by statisticians in Washington.

Socioeconomic class would trump family values. That’s no way to build a country, or at least it’s not the way this one was built. And I kind of like the way this one turned out.

c The bill would have instituted a point system that Rube Goldberg could have devised, giving different weights to different qualifications. There would be points for English proficiency, experience living here, a solid job offer from an American employer, and higher levels of education — especially in math, science and technology. Your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free? Who needs ‘em? They’d be elbowed aside by software engineers, credentialed professionals and assorted technicians.

We’re all products of our own experience, and the first thing I thought when reading an outline of this voluminous monstrosity was: Ma would never have made the cut.

Yes, my mother was young and strong. But she had no formal schooling, none at all. She was, as we liked to say in the family, illiterate in five languages. That’s what growing up on a battlefield of the First World War, Eastern Front, will give you: a true European education. Her major was suffering.

What she wanted most in life, desperately wanted, and would have overcome all obstacles to achieve, and just about did, was to be… an American. She wanted work, safety, respect, a home, a family, a chance. She knew who she was, and hated where she was — Europe, a word she pronounced to her dying day with a bitterness you could hear and feel and taste at 10 paces.

Ma also knew where she wanted to be: America. America. It would be all Europe wasn’t. Here she could be who she was, without apology, or on sufferance. In that sense, she was American before she ever disembarked at the Port of Boston, on Feb. 10, 1921. There wasn’t a fence in the world that would keep that 19-year-old girl, traveling alone, out of this country.

I saw a picture on television the other day, one of those grainy shots of an illegal who had just climbed over the fence. Finally on American soil, exhausted, still peering about anxiously, but alive, hopeful, grateful, he stopped to cross himself. I thought of Ma.

So why settle for a cockamamie immigration bill with its point-shmoint system and all the rest of its faults, dangers and unknowns? For the same reason Benjamin Franklin was for another hodgepodge of provisions he wasn’t exactly thrilled about, another Great Bargain that was more a vague and untested scheme. It was the deal concocted at a convention held in Philadelphia during the steaming summer heat of 1787: the Constitution of the United States.

The Fourth of July is a good day to re-read Mr. Franklin’s final address to the delegates to that convention. It is one of the wisest tributes to the spirit of compromise in a republic ever delivered.

Why would a practical, experienced old sage like Ben Franklin go along with such a vague, dubious system with all its soon-to-be-discovered faults? Because it was a system, rather than the loose, deteriorating nonsystem, more entropy than energy, that it would replace.

Those senators who voted against this immigration bill were in effect voting to keep what we have now: a nonsystem, an amnesty in practice that grows uglier, more dangerous, more unjust and exploitative and anarchic every year it’s allowed to persist, rather than a hopeful step, however shaky, toward a more perfect Union.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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