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To curb illegal immigration, it takes tough love

WASHINGTON

Walking among thousands of friendly Latino protesters in the nation's capital Monday, I couldn't help getting caught up in the group-hugness of the occasion.

What with red tulips sprouting everywhere, temperatures hovering near a perfect 75 degrees, and spring-green sprouts coaxing creatures to do-si-do - Yo queria a todo el mundo!

"Oh golly, Mr. Noah," my inner Pollyanna exclaimed, "can't we just build a bigger ark?"

And then Rep. James P. Moran, a Virginia Democrat who apparently was channeling Che Guevara, startled me from my dream state. His voice, ragged from the strain of sustained high-volume rhetoric, thundered platitudes as a woman translated into Spanish.

"You do not become American because you're lucky enough to be born of wealthy parents," he hollered unnecessarily as his voice was amplified through several speaker towers erected along the National Mall. "You become an American by working hard and providing for your family. By that definition, you are true Americans."

"Si se puede!" roared the crowd.

Moran and others who spoke, including Sen. Ted Kennedy and a raft of religious leaders of various denominations, gave the crowd what they wanted to hear. And the people were appeased.

The unmistakable, if largely inferred, message of the day was that Americans who want a secure border and a strict immigration policy are selfish nativists. And the Latino immigrants, many of whom are here illegally, are noble souls who want only a fair break.

Moran was on a roll:

"Do they (law-and-order citizens, presumably) not understand that America didn't become great by building walls around its borders? Do they not understand that American did not become great by creating another underclass? ... You are shaping America's destiny."

And then he launched into the someday-your-grandchildren's-grandchildren fairy tale of how the U.S. became a great nation thanks to the Latinos who demanded amnesty on April 10, 2006.

Never mind those white guys who wrote the Constitution and created the most prosperous nation on Earth.

Despite Moran's fiery entreaties to rouse the rabble, the crowd was notably polite, while the event more closely resembled a Fourth of July picnic than a protest. I haven't seen so many American flags since Sept. 12, 2001.

And while most chanted "Si se puede" ("Yes we can") in response to trigger phrases, the spirit of the day was palpably optimistic, cooperative and at least outwardly patriotic.

Even if the protesters' allegiance to the Republic were only strategic rather than sincere, it is nonetheless difficult to think about these mostly decent, hard-working, well-intentioned people in terms of deportation or criminalization, two elements of the House bill Monday's rallies were organized to protest.

The bill, sponsored by Reps. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., and Peter T. King, R-N.Y., and passed last December, also calls for building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

While solid arguments can be made in favor of a fence - national security being foremost - arguments against can be as easily made. As opponents keep insisting, where there's a will, there's a way around, over or under a wall.

There are, of course, ways to make a border impenetrable. Anyone who crossed into East Berlin while The Wall was in place vividly remembers how effective razor wire and rifles were. But are we really ready to start shooting neighbors at our borders? Please, consider that a rhetorical question.

Creating an immigration policy that is both humane and pragmatic is proving to be not so easy, especially as politics hinders rational discourse. Most of the rhetoric from both sides of the debate is insulting to intelligent Americans, who, though fair-minded, are realistic.

As nice and well-meaning as most illegal immigrants seem to be - and as much as most Americans want to help the less fortunate - no country can afford to allow itself to be overrun by all who want to take up residence there.

There are countless millions of poor people in the world, many living in more poverty-stricken areas than Mexico or other parts of Latin America. If we hope to help them while continuing to sustain our own nation's prosperity, we have no choice but to draw a line and enforce our policies.

Ultimately, our solution needs to be an instrument of tough love - neither Pollyannaish nor Draconian, humane but not personal. The ark, after all, is only so big, and even Noah couldn't save everybody.

Kathleen Parker, an Orlando Sentinel columnist, welcomes comments via e-mail at kparker@kparker.com. Her column appears on Friday.