10/16/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

High Fences, High Anxiety, High Expectations

The Statue of Liberty holds her torch high to light the way: "Give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free." Listen, Lady, I hate to point this out, but your flame is slipping. Why is the very word 'immigration" so charged that it causes Lou Dobbs of CNN apoplexy nightly? He hurls insults at the president of Mexico and berates anyone who does not believe illegal entrants into our country are outer space "aliens." Both President Bush and Senator McCain flip-flopped their positions when a majority of the Republican party howled at what is labeled "amnesty." Around election time, the word is only mentioned while whispering.

Let's consider this shift in attitudes in a lower voice and put hysteria aside for a few minutes. Let's take the time to reflect before we react. Take a deep breath. Ahhhh, there, that's better. The main reason for concern is essentially a population pressure point: so many chasing a new life and a dream (reasons our forefathers and mothers made that bold trek across the ocean). But some of the pressures have expanded. Reasons for antipathy toward the illegal immigrants from the south are:

1. We were here first.
2. We don't need all of you who don't pay taxes for schools and hospitals.
3. We don't understand your language.
4. You work more cheaply than we do.
5. Your population is growing faster than ours.
6. You culture often gives rise to youthful gang wars.

Border states with Mexico, generally, feel more forgiving of these pressures, because of sheer proximity and familiarity. The Spanish language is accustomed to being heard, and a strange new culture is not a factor. It is taken for granted. Mexican culture, history and architecture are an integral part of the scene and tradition.

The sheer numbers of the immigrants, however, make them a force with which to reckon. Those numbers need to be understood before we can "fix" them. The United States is still a Mecca for a better future and better educational facilities. So it is a given that people from countries with less want to come to countries with more. With that motive, we can identify. It is the numbers that are problematic. How we handle that problem intelligently will determine the state of our work force and our population.

First, many groups of immigrants have faced opposition and hostility: the Germans, Irish, African slaves, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, and others. What do you bet that the Natives in Virginia in the 17th century regarded those English ship sails with suspicion? This is hardly a new phenomenon. So the Statue of Liberty and her welcome are always being tested.

A first move would be for the new President of the United States to visit the President of Mexico soon after taking the oath of office. He should take with him a serious and ongoing agenda for a better Mexican economy; a common strategy for convicting drug sellers and stopping the violence; and the establishment of better and humane tactics for illegal border crossing. These issues should be worked on as soon as possible. And is it time to consider the legalization of drugs in order to remove the criminal and greed factor? Our current approach to controlling drugs is not working. While no one is sure legalization is the right answer, we should have some expert discussion about the consequences, good and bad.

As we have crops to pick, hotels to clean, and nails to hammer, a sensible work visa program needs to be reorganized. Our economy needs Mexican workers and vice-versa. This ought to be the beginning of a practical agreement. Cracking down hard on "coyotes," humans who deal in illegal human trafficking, should also be a priority.

Serious diplomacy and cooperation between neighbors can effect positive change. The President can provide leadership and follow up. The fence is an annoying farce. No one likes it. Build a 14 foot high fence and a 15 foot high ladder concession will make a new millionaire. Better electronic surveillance and beefed-up border patrol are better responses. And yes, we do need to halt as much illegal entry as possible. Guest worker passes are part of this strategy.

The 12 million people already here from Mexico, Central and South America should be given some status. Most have no home to return to and have American children. Criminals should be exported, but otherwise, we need to recognize that we are at least partially responsible for the presence of those without documentation. Their addition to the tax rolls would be a boon, although many of them pay taxes already. So we should grant them registration as citizens-in-waiting on the condition that they pay full taxes and participate fully in our legal system. There really is no other viable solution.

Realizing that nothing is perfect and that partial and practicable solutions are better than none at all is a good reason to lower voices and seek bi-country and bi-partisan answers. This is the path that our Statue's torch still illuminates.