Hypocrisy and paradoxes abound when it comes to illegal immigration.
Even the fiercest critics of illegal immigrants in the American Southwest never seem to check first the legal status of those who fix their roofs, mow their lawns or wash their dishes.
This past week, thousands of Hispanic demonstrators, fearful of strict new immigration laws, chanted "Mexico" and for some reason waved the flag of the country they fled from and most certainly do not want to return to.
Increasingly, Latin American governments have elected vocal anti-American politicians — even as they count on their citizens leaving for the U.S. in record numbers.
The Mexican government seeks to entice wealthy retired Americans to build homes south of the U.S. border, even as it exports its own homeless to this country. What a cynical mindset: "You take our Mexican poor, we'll take your American rich."
Opponents of illegal immigration lament the skyrocketing costs of incarcerating thousands of illegal immigrants, and providing health benefits to many others. They ignore that such public-entitlement costs are partially offset by the private subsidy that the cheap labor amounts to.
On the other hand, supporters of the status quo tend only to cite statistics showing how illegal immigrants prop up the American economy — as if workers who have little education, less English and no legal status will not get ill, hurt or in trouble.
Illegal immigration is so embedded in issues of history, exploitation, race, class and money that the mere discussion of it has a way of turning surreal.
So we talk of a guest-worker program as if the million willing Mexicans a year who won't qualify for it will smile and stay home. And, even for those who do qualify, a guest-worker program is a bad idea, for it perpetuates the notion of "good enough to work, not good enough to stay." We should evolve from, not institutionalize, the two-tiered system of "them and us."
We also talk of deportation as if it were feasible to send back 11 million people to Mexico in the largest population movement since the British partition of India.
And we don't talk of the greatest collective violation of American immigration laws in our history.
But there is still a solution to the immigration problem: It involves supporting any practice that leads to the assimilation of legal Mexican immigrants into the American mainstream — and opposing everything that does not.
Employers and La Raza activists who thrive on the current non-system might not like that approach, but it is the only way to avoid the gathering political and cultural storm.
As we've seen from second- and third-generation legal immigrants, when a person from Mexico comes to the U.S. with legal documentation, learns English and regards an unskilled job as the start, not the end, of a career, success most often follows.
And when immigrants, of all nationalities, finds themselves surrounded by others from all over the world, they generally accept English as our vital bond and see that a common culture, not race, is what matters.
Second, numbers are important. The U.S. can assimilate hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, as it does with other immigrant groups, who come legally and are integrated throughout the nation in multiethnic neighborhoods. But it cannot assimilate quickly millions of abject poor who live in apartheid communities. There the joy of reaching the U.S. is replaced by the bitterness of becoming part of its collective underclass.
Third, immigrants can survive one strike against them, maybe two — but not three. A Mexican citizen who is here illegally might do well with fluent English and a high-school diploma. But when one is illegal, not fluent in English and without education — and immersed with millions who share such disadvantages — then we witness the sort of raw emotion now on display in Congress and on our streets.
So, given these realities, we should allow those illegal immigrants who have been living and working here for at least five years to start their citizenship process. But we should insist this be a one-time exemption rather than yet another periodic amnesty that encourages others to break the law and unfairly cut ahead in the immigration line.
Meanwhile, border enforcement, employer sanctions, walls and more officers to prevent illegal immigration will work, but only if we allow Mexico a generous quota of legal immigrants.
The real immigration debate is about turning legal arrivals into citizens. But we cannot do that until we work with those already here — and ensure that others in the future come legally and in measured numbers and so don't repeat the shared mistakes of our past.