It's almost a reflex for Americans to say, "Immigration is what made America great."
That's like saying "food does a body good." Well, yes, but not all kinds. And not in any amount. We just had a 20-something Augustan die recently from complications of obesity, after all.
No doubt, legal immigration is one of the greatest things about America. If you've never been to a naturalization ceremony, you really should attend one sometime. The earnestness, the excitement and the reverence for the momentous occasion are things you simply have to experience to believe.
That's not to say it's solemn. It's one of the most lighthearted ceremonies you'll ever see.
Maybe the only thing better than being born in America is making a conscious choice to become an American.
This is a nation of immigrants. Many of us have not-too-distant relatives who made the trip here after making the traumatic decision to leave their native country for a new life and new opportunities in this land of plenty and sweeping liberty. They struggled to learn the language -- and if unable or too intimidated to do so, they were certain to make their children learn it; they knew it was the only way to realize one's full potential.
They brought with them many traditions and much culture from their birthplace -- making America the richer for it. And because they were here legally, they had nothing to fear from celebrating their old-world culture openly. But they also reveled in being American. And most never had any intention of going back.
Newly minted immigrants have a way of respecting and loving this country that can shame some of us natives. From the Brazilian whose proud voice can be heard above all others during the Pledge of Allegiance, to the African whose children were already serving in our military before she took the oath of citizenship -- these are real examples we've witnessed -- it is, and should be, stirring to become an American.
But while they can take advantage of much of what America has to offer, illegal immigrants will never soak in the exhilaration of a naturalization ceremony. Because they live on the fringe of society, they may never fully grasp English, vote, embrace our customs or appreciate our heritage. To some, who come here primarily to work and send money back home, this may be more of a commute than anything.
They aren't just breaking the law; they're cheating themselves.
Which kind of immigration should we humanely encourage?
The fact is, by allowing -- and therefore encouraging -- rampant illegal immigration, we are discouraging the other. Why wait in line and get jumped over by someone else at the border?
Dangerous, constraining, stultifying and sadly devoid of many of the joys of assimilation into a new and vibrant culture, illegal immigration is more than corrosive to the host country and its laws; it's inhumane to the immigrant, particularly when compared to the joy of legal immigration.
Enforcing our laws and securing our borders -- as a bill in Arizona would have that state do, in the absence of a negligent federal government that is allowing people to die on the border -- is only one piece of the puzzle. But it's an essential piece.
Once that is achieved, we should expand legal immigration totals to meet the needs of our country -- and the beautiful aspirations of those truly seeking a new life here.