Paul Greenberg

There's something familiar about this endless national debate and general tantrum over illegal immigration. Or maybe the fuss is over immigration itself, the size and effect of it. Whatever the cause, the result is clear enough: a lot of anger and resentment. The political atmosphere in which it's being conducted is enough to bring back the bad old days when the issue was civil rights.

Back then, anybody who urged a little perspective, certainly in these latitudes, could expect to be denounced in no uncertain terms. Public discourse was conducted almost exclusively in slogans rather than thoughts. The favored slogan was STATES' RIGHTS! One Southern politician after another, from Orval Faubus to George Wallace, rode it to wild acclaim.

The catch phrase may be different in this new era of bad feelings - ILLEGAL ALIENS! - but the invitation to demagoguery is proving just as irresistible to politicians on the make. (Colorado's Tom Tancredo comes naturally to mind.) Ambitious pols may not be able to do much to solve the problems associated with massive immigration, but they recognize it as an issue they can take for a wild ride.

It's possible to build a career the same way outside politics, too. An ambitious anchorman, for example, could use this issue to acquire a nationwide following on television. All he has to do is appeal to our deepest fears in the most authoritative, even objective, Walter Cronkite tones. It helps to wave around the dreaded A-word:

AMNESTY! See CNN's Lou Dobbs and his single-issue approach to the news.

Eventually the obdurate reality will dawn on the voters: Immigration legal and illegal will continue to grow as long as an advanced, continent-sized country, a land of opportunity hungry for labor-shares a long, porous border with a Third World nation full of desperate people eager to supply it, and prepared to do almost anything to get here. Wouldn't you be in their ragged shoes?

Combine human beings' capacity for hope with the natural operation of the market, and, one way or another, labor is going to flow where it can be employed. We may be able to slow the flow but not stop it. Like a flood, it can be dammed here and there, but eventually, as every hydrologist knows, all that water is going to go where it wants to go.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.