On Monday, Los Angeles hosted an enormous protest over proposed immigration reforms. Smaller - but still large - rallies were held in several other cities. Organizers were eager to cast the events as deeply patriotic affairs. Marchers were urged to carry American flags and chant things like "We are Americans."
But, as the inestimable blogger Mickey Kaus noted, the organizers couldn't fine-tune their message (though they could count on the mainstream media to help as much as possible). Thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans - of no doubt varied immigration status - carried Mexican flags. "If you said 'Mexican flag' every time you saw a Mexican flag," Kaus writes, "you never stopped talking." Some carried signs saying that the United States stole Mexican land.
This is just a small illustration of how the debate people want to have about immigration is usually not the debate we should have.
America doesn't really have an immigration problem. Or, to be more accurate, it has several distinct immigration problems. The first and most prominent is immigration from Mexico. Many pro-immigration advocates say that Mexicans are no different than other immigrants, and that what critics of Mexican immigration - legal and illegal - say about Latinos is what they said about Germans, Poles, Italians, the Irish and the Jews in the past.
Obviously, there's some truth to this. Many of the complaints do sound similar. But that doesn't mean the arguments have the same weight. The arguments against interracial marriage sound very similar to the arguments against gay marriage, but that doesn't mean a black woman marrying a white man is the same thing as a man marrying another man.
Similarly, people may have complained about the ability of legal immigrants from Italy to assimilate, or fretted that these Italian immigrants were taking jobs from Americans, but that doesn't mean illegal Mexican immigrants in the early 21st century are indistinguishable from legal Italian ones a century ago. The fact is that America has never shared an enormous border with Italy. Large chunks of U.S. soil never belonged to Italy or Ireland. You can be as romantic as you like about the glory and honor of America's noble tradition of accepting the "wretched refuse" of the world; it won't change this very basic fact.