Steve Chapman

An undocumented foreigner crossed the Rio Grande near Hidalgo, Texas, the other day. He had spent three weeks traveling from Honduras, and he was carrying only one thing with him: a birth certificate. He was hoping to find relatives in San Antonio or Maryland. His name is Alejandro, and he's 8 years old.

His story and photo appeared in The New York Times, providing a stark reminder that illegal immigration often involves harmless individuals who are guilty of nothing. From the angry reaction to the surge of unaccompanied minors and mothers with young children crossing the border in recent weeks, you might just forget that.

Recently Murrieta, Calif., Mayor Alan Long denounced the transfer of undocumented immigrants to a local facility, and a city councilman worried that, as The Desert Sun reported, "the immigrant families would bring disease and crime." Between 200 and 300 protesters formed a human wall to block buses carrying the foreigners. That's not a big turnout for a city of more than 100,000.

Fox News fed the fears with a lurid story on its website quoting unnamed sources who said children housed at a Texas Air Force base had measles, chicken pox, scabies, not to mention that "lice would just be climbing down their hair."

Of course, lice are not unique to these youngsters; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that "6 million to 12 million infestations occur each year in the United States among children 3 to 11 years of age." But accusing foreigners of bringing disease and filth is a favorite tactic of nativists.

Much of the reaction stems from motives that are anything but pure. One protester in Murrieta told CNN, "I just wish America would be America again because it's not, and it's not just pointed to the Hispanics."

But there has indeed been a tide of arrivals that badly strain the government's ability to handle them. Republicans blame it on President Barack Obama. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott accused him of "policies that entice children to navigate more than a thousand miles away from home, going through the most treacherous conditions, facing things like human trafficking and sexual assault." By this, he presumably had in mind the administration's deferral of deportation of some children brought here illegally by their parents ("Dreamers").

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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