Latino leaders, meeting in Los Angeles last week, were already debating whether they should continue marching in the streets, disrupt the economy or register voters. At the same time, people who are angry about the federal government's failure to stop illegal immigration have introduced local measures to take away housing, jobs and even medical assistance from noncitizens in their communities. On both sides, people are demanding to be heard.
Now Congress has walked away from the debate, at least for this year. So it's up to the rest of us to tone down our rhetoric and listen to the voices on all sides. As both an immigrant to this country and a proud American citizen, I have a unique perspective on this debate. I also have some advice.
To the immigrant rights activists I say: Change your message. When I came to America, I wrapped myself in the flag because I wanted to be a part of the American dream. I worked hard, learned English and followed the laws. I learned the customs and culture of my new country. I spent time with English-speakers just so I could hear them talk and learn the language from them.
Being an immigrant is like being a guest in someone's house. Your hosts go about their daily routine. You can sit on the couch and do your own thing, or you can ask, "What can I do to help? How can I be a part of this household?"
What people see today when immigrant rights activists march in the streets carrying Mexican flags and angry signs is that you do not want to join America's house. The message that sends is that you do not want to learn our language or our culture. Unlike the message sent by the masses of Irish, Italian, German and Asian immigrants, whom Americans now proudly call our "melting pot," these images suggest that Mexican immigrants do not want to make that effort.
I do not believe that this is the message most Mexican immigrants — legal or illegal — wish to send. I believe that most Mexican immigrants are as proud to be part of America as I was. They are some of the hardest working and strongest believers in the American dream. So my message to you is: Carry your home country in your heart, but carry the American flag in our streets.
To those who believe illegal immigration is reaching a crisis level in this country I say: Tone down the rhetoric. I myself have said things that caused division even when that was not my intent. Words can be weapons. We must be careful to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration, between those who break our laws to do us harm and those who break our laws to find freedom and prosperity in the greatest nation on Earth. It is hypocritical for Congress to condemn people for coming here illegally when the federal government has been unwilling to do what it takes to stop them from coming in the first place.
Now that they are here, what do we do? Amnesty is not the answer. Congress granted amnesty in 1986 and promised it would end the problem. It didn't. Amnesty only made it worse. You don't reward people for breaking the law. And you don't grant someone the rights of citizenship simply by virtue of how long they have been in this country illegally — that makes a mockery of the law and penalizes those who waited years and followed the rules.
But it is not realistic either to round up 12 million people and send them home. Many have families here now, children and grandchildren who are citizens. Splitting them up would be inhumane. Some say it would cost as much as $250 billion to even try. Who would pay for that? It is simply not realistic.
The answer, as I have repeatedly said, is, first, to secure the border to stop the problem from getting worse. Second, we must create a temporary-worker program so people can come here legally to work. We should also lift the cap on work visas for industries such as technology, engineering and agriculture so immigrants can be hired when there are not enough U.S. workers. And we must create a path to legal status for those living in the shadows illegally. They must pay a fine for breaking our laws. They must learn English and become part of our culture. They must pay back taxes and pay for healthcare and education rather than expect American taxpayers to pay extra when some cannot even afford healthcare or college for their own children.
Unfortunately, we must wait for Congress to return next year to take up the critical issue of comprehensive immigration reform. Meanwhile, we must do all we can to stop the problem from getting worse and to maintain a civil debate about illegal immigration.