Like millions of Americans, I have been following the increasingly strident debates over immigration policy with great interest. I'm only sure about one thing: Current immigration laws aren't working. The issue of immigration reform is a terribly complex one and one that crosses traditional political lines. It is also not new; Americans have been arguing about immigration almost since the beginning of this nation.
We have had periods of open borders and we have had periods when our borders were closed. Our immigration laws have often been called unjust and many have fought over the years to make our laws humane and fair. There are few subjects in the United States that have aroused so much passion over so many years as has immigration.
Today, the battle is primarily over immigration from Mexico. Estimates of the number of undocumented aliens in the United States vary from 10 million to 12 million or more. At least one state has put National Guard troops on its border with Mexico to bolster the federal presence. Weekly newspapers are filled with tales of horror about the treatment of the mostly poor men and women crossing our Southern borders with the help of "coyotes," despicable merchants who trade in human lives, charging huge amounts to get the poor across to the United States and, at the first sign of trouble, abandoning them to die in the desert.
Congress currently is debating a number of immigration reform measures, some of which would make felons of illegal immigrants and those who employ or substantially assist them. Other bills would open our borders more than they are at present. President Bush favors a compromise that would create a category of "guest workers" who could eventually attain citizenship after proving themselves to be loyal, law-abiding and hard-working.
As I said at the beginning of this column, I have no easy solutions to the problem of illegal immigration and I deeply suspect anyone who claims that he has. I do believe that some so-called "solutions" won't work. I don't believe, for instance, that a giant fence across our borders will work. It's been tried before. The Chinese called theirs the "Great Wall." But fences, even high-tech fences, aren't going to stop the tide. They may slow it for a while, but that is all they'll do.
And putting armed troops at the border doesn't make any sense to me. Are we to re-erect the Berlin Wall, complete with armed guard stations, in the American Southwest? Are we going to shoot people who try to come across the border without permission? I don't think that's how Americans want to behave.
I believe that, in the end, what we need is a serious and nonpartisan discussion about immigration policy in this country. I think this is a subject too important to be left to Congress or state legislatures. I think that this is a subject that needs to be discussed in public forums in every town and city, in classrooms across the nation and on the Internet.
Perhaps, this is the policy question that will finally move us to a new form of democracy where millions of Americans can express their views over the Net. Perhaps the government should set up Web sites for discussion and opinions and eventually turn these results over to our elected representatives.
While I don't have a solution to this complex set of problems, I do have a suggestion about what our guiding spirit should be. The United States is a nation built by immigrants. Except for American Indians, we are all immigrants. We have given shelter and refuge to the poor and the oppressed for two centuries. It is, I believe, one of the keys to our greatness as a nation.
Twenty years ago, I took a ship from Southampton to New York after a summer's stay in Cambridge. I was born in this country as were my parents. But even so, when I saw the Statue of Liberty rising from the mists as we entered New York harbor tears came to my eyes. I felt an emotion I can only describe as joy at coming home to this wonderful nation, a nation that gave refuge and opportunity to my ancestors.
And in that early morning I recited to myself the lines I'd learned at school, lines engraved on Miss Liberty: "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free :" I hope that as we engage in our current debates on immigration we never forget those lines.