My Czech-born wife, Renate, spent 26 years in the United States before she decided to become a citizen.
While she was trying to make up her mind, Renate followed precisely the instructions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. She dutifully registered every year at the post office. She kept her green card up to date.
We assumed that if she failed to comply with federal immigration laws, she might be deported. When she decided to become naturalized, she studied diligently the government-recommended texts on civics and history. Renate passed the citizenship test in a breeze and also proved to examiners that she could read, write and speak English.
The day of her American naturalization was one of the happiest of our lives. We staged a grand patriotic celebration. There was only one slight flaw: The federal judge presiding over the ceremony fell asleep on the bench.
I should have known then. The federal government didn't give a damn. Illegal, schmilegal - the age of protecting our borders and caring who comes and goes was about over. Citizenship was no longer a big deal. The year was 1982. Ronald Reagan was president.
Now look at us. The country is in crisis mode. Illegal aliens have flooded our Southern and Western states. Not all illegals are unskilled Latinos seeking a better life. Educated Muslim terrorists with Middle East origins roamed the country for months without valid visas and finally attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001, leaving 3,000 dead.
The feds knew these suicidal fanatics were among us but didn't have the energy or gumption to round them up. Similar madmen are undoubtedly still at large and waiting for their appointed time.
In Georgia illegal aliens, mostly Mexicans, have overwhelmed health care, education and law enforcement agencies in several locales. We are not financially equipped to host the hordes. Yet big industries (tufted textiles, agriculture, construction, etc.) say they can't endure without them.
Our elected officials have finally awakened. "It's a time for action!" they cry.
After sitting on his hands for six years, even President Bush is stirring. Sen. Johnny Isakson, putting on his stern face, says Congress must move. The state Legislature also is trying to get into the immigration act. The General Assembly's approach is to tax and make life generally uncomfortable and inconvenient for illegal Latino laborers.
However, the state stuff is relatively tepid compared to what is really required. Immigration is a federal responsibility in need of careful, international attention. Besides, many of the state lawmakers involved in this "immigration opportunity" are attention-starved second-raters - part of the same bunch supporting more legal gunplay in our public parks and scolding dead New Dealers and a has-been actress.
Politicians, even the sincere and smart ones, must walk gingerly on immigration. Gov. Sonny Perdue, who has farming interests, has emerged as a voice of moderation. Sen. Saxby Chambliss favors granting temporary legal status to some migrant farm workers. The corporate world has little enthusiasm for illegal alien roundups. What's left of our factories and farms needs the low-pay, low-maintenance workers to survive.
Besides, the illegal-alien culture has become entrenched. Tens of thousands demonstrate at the mere mention of trying to close the borders and deporting a few of the millions of their undocumented brethren. They find it an outrage that the federal government is even contemplating enforcing present laws, much less enacting tougher ones.
Spokespersons for the undocumented residents argue that the feds did next to nothing while hungry and ambitious peasants crossed our borders illegally, took low-paying jobs, bore children (American citizens when they took their first breath) and established communities.
Advocates for illegal workers say it's a little late to start undoing that tangle now. They fear that federal and state governments are about to harm their lawbreaking clients and constituents.
Let's face it, friends. It doesn't matter what the federal and state governments attempt at this late date. The real wronged parties in this mess are you and I - law-abiding, taxpaying citizens who believed our government would at least protect the integrity of our borders and fend off invasion of any kind. We have been betrayed.
Just as the feds let slide the New Orleans' levees, they yawned at illegal immigration. Now it may be too late to repair either problem.
Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.