I finally talked last weekend to someone who made sense on the immigration issue. He's not an INS specialist, a think tank expert, or a know-it-all editorial writer. Instead, he's a San Diego businessman, and one so modest about his thoughts that he was reluctant even to let me use his name.
Bill Tanksley has spent most of his life in Mexico and southern California. He thinks that has enabled him to understand a good bit of the mindset on both sides of the border-although he readily concedes that some of the issues are so complex that nobody can really identify with every nuance.
Tanksley thinks Mexicans (and by implication, immigrants from other countries as well) need to understand far better than they do what American culture is all about. They need to understand what rule by law entails, and they need to understand that a "melting pot"-not a "salad bowl"-sensibility has made the United States what it is.
And Tanksley thinks some Americans need to back off a bit in the harshness with which so many ask the question, "What part of illegal don't you understand?" He thinks Mexicans have been taught for many years-from both sides of the border-a pretty lenient view of the law. When hundreds of employers, including agencies of the U.S. government itself, regularly advertise in Mexico for transient workers, why shouldn't such workers assume the laws don't mean too much?
Tanksley's solution, contradictory as it may sound, is a simultaneous opening and securing of the border.
The border should be opened, he says, by formalizing the invitation to Mexicans to come here to work. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, we need them. Whole industries-especially those in construction and agriculture-would collapse without them. So let's welcome such workers in whatever numbers the free market for such labor sustains. A majority of such workers, Tanksley observes, do not want to live in the Unites States; they want to earn a nest egg to send or take back home, or enough to launch a business back there. So let the traffic flow, he says.
But the border should also be secured. That can't be done, Tanksley stresses, in any physical sense. It's just too big. But it can be done stateside with a consistent and rigorous administration of basic law-especially in the three areas of transportation, housing, and employment. No driver's licenses for those who are here illegally. No rental housing (and obviously, no housing purchases). No jobs. Make it clear to everyone that vehicles will be confiscated, houses will be subject to seizure, and employers subject to arrest when basic identification procedures have been ignored or falsified.
Such an approach, Tanksley argues, will send the consistent message-not just to Mexicans, but to scofflaw Americans as well-that the law here means something. It will say clearly that we are a nation with a huge welcome mat, but that anyone stepping onto that mat had better be prepared to live by the rules.
This isn't "amnesty," Tanksley insists. He gets irritated when he hears folks use that term to describe (and deride) any and all efforts to find a middle ground in the immigration debate. Such oversimplification, he says, and the parallel pejorative use of the term illegal are not helpful in the whole discussion. Most Mexicans have been taught by their government that it's OK to wink at certain selective skirting of the law-and they expect the same thing here. Some Americans are aghast at such relativism-until they're reminded of the abandon with which we ourselves observe speed limits and blue laws.
America does indeed offer the best mix of freedom and law in the whole world, Tanksley stresses. We shouldn't be surprised that others want to enjoy our blessings.
So as we respond, we've got no right to be stingy with what we've been given. Physical walls and fences-besides the fact that they don't work-send an altogether wrong message. But watering down requirements for those who would join us, either temporarily or permanently, also says the wrong things. Roll out the welcome mat, Tanksley urges. But beef up and don't let anybody destroy the very thing that makes America so inviting.
I like this common man's common sense.