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Calling on immigration

I've hosted a lot of call-in programs on a lot of subjects during my six-plus years as the host of These Days. And I've gotten a pretty good idea of where our callers stand on a lot of topics. When Petco Park was in the news, the vast majority of calls we got were from people opposed to public funding for ballparks. As a rule, our callers do not like President Bush. They tend to be anti-growth when it comes to housing and urban planning issues.

But there are issues where we can expect our callers to be split down the middle. Recently, I've been reminded that one of those issues is immigration. We hear from people who think illegal immigrants are important to our society and should be legalized. But we also hear from people who resent illegal immigrants and think they're depressing wages and using too many public resources.

Across the nation, we see hundreds of thousands of people protesting in the streets in favor of immigrant rights. Yet opinion surveys reflect a great American ambivalence on the issue. When it comes to illegal immigration, the only thing Americans seem to agree on is that current policy makes no sense.

My experience fielding calls on this issue tells me there are conscientious people on both sides. Plenty of people believe U.S. citizenship should be hard-won and that laws should be followed. Immigrants who cross the border illegally aren't playing by the rules, they say, and neither are the employers who hire them.

On the other hand, there are people like writer Francisco Jimenez. I recently interviewed Jimenez, who came to this country five decades ago as a little boy and the son of illegal immigrants.

When asked about this great national debate, he said, "When you see a young woman crossing the desert so she can come to this country and get a job to feed her children, I can't imagine anyone being critical of that woman."

Sure enough -- for some of Mexico's poor, crossing the border may be illegal but it's the right thing to do when the alternative is letting their kids go hungry.

In the end we're left with a dilemma of law, policy and enforcement. Can we write laws that give poor but hard-working immigrants a shot at a better life in America? Can we write and enforce laws that are humane and fair, that protect American security and reward immigrants who go the legal route? I think we can. Now it's up to our politicians to find the guts, the compassion and wisdom to do it.

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