06/14/2007 10:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Playing by The Rules of Anti-Immigrant Hysteria

As a legal immigrant to the United States, I suppose I should feel terribly outraged by illegal immigration. I "played by the rules," after all, unlike all the illegals who sneaked in across the border or overstayed their visas and are now busy, if the hysterical nativist rhetoric is to be believed, destroying America. Then again, as a white, western European son of academics, the rules were rather stacked in my favor. (Note that I dropped the limey 'u' from 'favor' for the sake of Lou Dobbs. Let it never be said that us immigrants don't adapt to the dominant culture). Now, as a member of this great society, I have to ask if those rules are really all that fair.

Is it fair for millions of eager workers to be kept out of the U.S. economy by immigration laws that have been made archaic by the rapidly globalizing economic order of which the United States is the world leader? Is it fair for millions of people who want desperately to become Americans, pay taxes and improve their lives and those of their families to be excluded by an immigration system that is not only outmoded, but frankly a little racist? Is it fair for millions of hardworking immigrants happy to take on the back-breaking, low-paying jobs that natives scorn -- keeping our economy humming, holding down consumer prices, and paying taxes while actually reducing the crime rate -- to be maligned as violent criminals, the great enemy of the middle class and a burden on social services?

One would think the answer is obvious. There's no doubt large-scale immigration poses serious questions for America's economy and society -- questions of growing wage inequality, cultural cohesion and global economic competition. There's also little doubt in my mind that America's uniquely dynamic society can succeed in confronting those issues and continue its extraordinary experiment in multi-ethnic, pluralistic and prosperous liberal democracy. It's no coincidence that much of the world wants to move to America, and you'd think those born here would take it as a compliment. Instead, a broad segment of the American public seems determined to throw a kind of national tantrum over the issue of illegal immigration. Led by venomus figures such as Republican Congressman and presidential candidate, Tom Tancredo, it is demanding that the borders be sealed and tens of millions of immigrants be rounded up and booted out. As a solution, this is ludicrous; as policy it would be disastrous.

Thankfully, mass expulsion is unlikely to be adopted. But the movement that supports it did successfully sink the recent bi-partisan immigration reform bill, which, though far from perfect, at least represented a serious effort to modernize the system and normalize the status of illegals. The bill called for increased enforcement, a migrant worker program that was probably too small and inflexible, and a points system for future immigrants similar to that used by many other countries that seemed largely sensible but may have undermined the dynamic of family "chain" immigration that has been so crucial to economic success for immigrants in the past. It also called for illegal immigrants currently residing in the country to pay a fine and return to their country of origin to be processed and become legal U.S. residents -- a rather silly and impractical "toe-touch" provision intended as a psychological sop to the anti-immigrant lobby. That little ruse didn't work of course and was immediately dismissed as "amnesty" -- the most singeing hot-button word in the entire immigration debate.

But amnesty is exactly what it was, and a good idea too. An amnesty is a decision to forgive past transgressions of the law when the law is deemed unjust or when enforcement would do more harm than good to the public interest. Obviously that's not as catchy as "throw them out" or "everyone should play by the rules" and no doubt all those communications experts in Washington advise their employers to avoid the word "amnesty" at any cost. But intellectually, the argument is inescapable. Amnesty is exactly what is called for here, and you don't have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to understand the concept. Even the great conservative god Reagan did it in the 1980s. Current immigration law bars far too many from achieving the American dream while winking at their exploitation by unscrupulous employers and perpetuating a system that excludes an entire class of people who did break the law, but are otherwise overwhelmingly law-abiding, hard-working and a boon to our society. When the rules so obviously interfere with fair play, it's time to change them.