WRITING IN The Examiner last month, the ranking Republican on the House Immigration Subcommittee offered an endearing analogy to explain his opposition to the Senate's proposed immigration overhaul.
Kindergarten students, wrote Iowa Representative Steve King, are taught to line up at snack time and patiently wait their turn. A child who cuts in front of the others is promptly reprimanded and sent to the back of the line. "If not, the entire classroom erupts with charges of 'That's not fair!"' Making the line-cutter wait until all the other children have gotten their snacks teaches "the entire class . . . that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished." King's conclusion: "The Senate amnesty proposal amounts to letting every line-cutter walk away with his cupcake."
Given the rancor with which so much of the immigration debate is conducted, there's a winsome appeal to King's "kindergarten" comparison: Even little kids know better than to force their way to the head of the line -- shouldn't grown-up immigrants?
But winsome or not, the congressman's analogy fails. Illegal immigrants don't steal across the Mexican border because they lack the patience to wait their turn in line. They do it because there is no line for them to wait in.
The great majority of immigrants who enter the United States lawfully qualify for visas because of family ties: They are lucky enough to be related to a US citizen. For them, there is indeed a line -- depending on the country of origin, the wait for a family-based visa can take upward of 10 years. A smaller number of legal immigrants are granted visas because they have advanced degrees or specialized skills and a job is waiting for them.
For most illegal immigrants, a legal option simply doesn't exist. Under current law, a young Mexican or Salvadoran who wants to improve his life by moving to America and working hard at a useful job generally has just two options: (a) Enter illegally, or (b) stay out forever. Several hundred thousand a year choose option (a).
To Representative King and those who think the way he does -- the Pat Buchanans, the Lou Dobbses, the conservative talk-show hosts and their riled listeners -- the illegal entry seems to be all that matters. They don't ask whether it makes sense to bar industrious and productive go-getters who value America as a land of opportunity and who supply labor for which there is a yawning demand. As far as they're concerned, illegal aliens are "immigration criminals," and the only important issue on the agenda is how to keep them out.
"Put up a giant fence," demands nationally syndicated radio talkmaster Glenn Beck. "You stop the people who are coming here because they're criminals or they want to do us harm." In a Page 1 story on the grass-roots opposition to the immigration bill, The New York Times quotes "angry voter" Monique Thibodeaux, an office manager in suburban Detroit: "These people came in the wrong way, so they don't belong here, period."
But something is not wrong -- intrinsically wrong, bad in and of itself -- merely because it is illegal. Consider an example: It is against the law to put anything without postage on it into someone's mailbox. If your neighbor prints flyers advertising a yard sale and drops one into each letterbox on the street, he has doubtless broken the law. But would anyone say he has done something evil?
By the same token, it is clearly illegal to cross the border into the United States without a visa. But someone who does so in order to find work doesn't deserve to be branded a "criminal." Doing so only inflames and confuses an issue that is contentious enough as it is. And it cheapens a word that should be reserved for those who purposely harm others through behavior that is genuinely wrongful: embezzlers, rapists, arsonists, murderers.
The demonizing of illegal aliens keeps us from having a rational discussion about US immigration policy.
The national debate should be focused on real issues -- how many annual newcomers our economy can absorb, the best way to encourage immigrants to assimilate, what to require of illegals so they can get right with the law, how to protect national security without undermining the open character of American society. Instead we are saddled with hysterical condemnations of "amnesty" and delusional demands for a 2,000-mile barrier along the Mexican border.
Twenty years ago this week in Berlin, President Reagan uttered his memorable challenge: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Conservatives who extol Reagan's legacy might ask themselves what he would have thought of the idea that our response to hard-working risk-takers so eager for a piece of the American Dream that they jeopardize life and limb to come here should be a Berlin-style wall of our own. I suspect it's a notion he would have scorned -- along with the suggestion that all we really need to know about immigration we learned in kindergarten.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
-- ## --