As much as immigration issues have been in the news in recent weeks, it's surprising that we've heard so little about how the United States wound up with 9 million to 12 million illegal immigrants (estimates vary based on who's doing the guessing). With all kinds of laws on the books to regulate the human flow across borders, we still managed to wind up with millions of people who shouldn't be here.
Knowing how that happened might be instructive for legislators and other policymakers who now seek to pass even more laws aimed at putting the government back in control of the situation.
And knowing that millions of illegal immigrants, mostly crossing our border with Mexico, were able to get here, in spite of all those laws, should tell us something about the potential success of any new laws.
This is why certain lawmakers and policymakers would like to see a leakproof barrier in place between the U.S. and Mexico before existing laws are fully enforced or any more laws are added.
Doubters say there is no such thing as a barrier thousands of miles long to keep out determined people who have their minds set on crossing a closed border.
East Germany had a wall hundreds of miles long. It wasn't built to keep foreigners out. It was built to keep East Germans from leaving. Many of them succeeded anyway in their efforts to leave the repression and totalitarianism of the communist regime.
Israel is building a border hundreds of miles long to prevent settlement in certain areas. Even with armed troops and tanks, settlers are finding ways to get past the barrier.
There is no talk of building a wall for thousands of miles between the U.S. and Canada. Why? Because the opportunities for achieving the American dream are just as real north of the border as they are here in the U.S.
Mexico is a major trade partner for the U.S. and is dependent on American enterprise and largesse in so many ways. More of the responsibility for keeping Mexicans in Mexico, unless they go through all the hoops of legal immigration, should fall upon the Mexican government. Putting political and economic pressure on Vicente Fox's government would be far less costly in both human and financial terms than building walls and deploying the National Guard.
Finally, a word about the idea, expressed even by some elected officials, that we should round up all the illegal immigrants and send them back to wherever they came from. Anyone who stops to think about the logistics of such a proposal will quickly concede that it's not possible. Where would they go? How would they get there? What receiving nation would want them? And, most importantly, if we could round them up now, why didn't we do it when they first got here?
The immigration issue may be one of the most complicated in recent history. There are no easy answers. But the high visibility has, at least, forced lawmakers and policymakers to pay attention.