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Richard Neuhaus described something I once wrote for First Things magazine as “winsomely forceful.” I thought that was an unusually charming turn of phrase, he was good at them, and it honestly was the tone I tried to achieve in my “uninformed” piece last Thursday on immigration.

For those of you who missed last week’s column due to life threatening illness or because you had to get the dog wormed (the only plausible reasons I can imagine for skipping my golden prose) I talked about illegal immigration and prefaced my remarks with accounts of legal immigrants I know who have come to America. From there I argued something must be done for undocumented families and their children. The piece was not”yes, I am shocked”universally praised.

Reading the comments left by many readers indicates at least three things. First Things readers are serious people, so serious playful whimsy on serious topics tends to confuse some of them. Many of them misspell my name. And, last, I confess, I must have fallen somewhat short of the mark at being winsome or forceful, or the two in combination. Any confusion among readers was entirely my fault. On top of all that, immigration has become another third rail in public policy with the left and the right mercilessly scratching at each other without quarter. Used to be, messing with Social Security would get you deep fried pretty quickly and still does. But immigration, illegal or not, does just as well these days. Anyway, I should have offered better clarity. So I will start over.

I began saying I did not know what I was talking about. That really ticked off a couple folks and earned me accusations of a “contemptible” “faux humility” by one reader. Let me be clear: I didn’t know what I was talking about. The fact is we do not know with any accuracy how many undocumented people are living in the United States.

One hears high-ball estimates from the hard-right “round ‘em up and ship ‘em back” contingent and low-ball figures from the “aw, aren’t illegals cute” among progressives. Here is a real question. How many children and youth would have been affected by The Dream Act of 2010, the failed legislation that would have created a conditional permanent residency for undocumented children? Go ahead, take a guess. Sixty-five thousand? Eight hundred thousand? Both figures were tossed around in the debate, the lower one by proponents and the higher by opponents. Even some Dream Act advocates, prominently the Center for American Progress, asserted a number of “no more than” seven hundred thousand. My point: I do not know what I am talking about. And nobody else does either.

Another respondent took exception to the evidence I marshaled to support my personal immigration policy, namely stories I’ve collected from immigrants I have met. “It is a clever ploy to declare abject humility and follow it with a handful of emotional anecdotes that point to an implied assertion. One could summarize this column as ‘I don’t want to entertain your responses because I am more empathetic than you.’ The current debate is about ‘illegal’ immigration. Since Reverend Salzmann agrees that our border laws should be respected what function does his essay have other than to throw distracting flack into an important discussion?”

It’s Saltzman . And I don’t like “reverend” as a title (though the fellow gets a pass; he didn’t know). And I was hardly humble; I’d say instead arrogantly ignorant. But, sure, you bet I used “emotional anecdotes” to reach “an implied assertion.” Absent hard fact, emotional anecdotes really are the next best thing. The purpose some of those stories tried to serve was to reveal just how esoteric, arcane, mysterious, and unfathomable immigration rules are for people trying to gain legal admission.

The lady from India who spent a decade in Canada before being granted an entry visa, what was that? After my piece appeared a friend told me”I can’t resist one more story”about his son and his new Chinese wife, trying to follow immigration rules so she may join her husband in Houston. They met in Canada and were married in Singapore. A U.S. immigration form asked the young bride to provide a U.S. birth certificate or an affidavit of birth abroad to a U.S. citizen. Well, that’s impossible, what with her being Chinese and all, so my friend called the immigration help line. Some help. “Unfortunately, sir,” he was told, “I cannot access that form on my computer, so I will not be able to answer your question.” Was there a supervisor he might speak with? No. “Unfortunately, sir, there is no one here who will be able to answer your question. I suggest that you consult an immigration attorney.”

If”answering my critic”my assertion was only implied I regret I did not make it explicit. Clamping down the border is one thing. Figuring out how to best respond to the presence of undocumented families already here is another. Why we cannot do both comprehensively eludes me.

Last year the United States admitted one million legal immigrants. Most years the numbers hover between eight hundred thousand and nine hundred thousand, an impressive figure any way one cares to look at it. We are”and we should say so with pride”a very generous nation in our immigration policy. We are much poorer at devising coherent regulations that express our generosity.

Oh, back to my immigration policy: Let ‘em all in . That didn’t win me many friends either. But there you go; I was trying out that winsomely forceful thing again. I did allow as how that likely makes for poor public policy. Would anyone think otherwise? At the same time, keep in mind we are a nation instinctively friendly to immigrants. Should anyone wish otherwise? As first instincts go, rubbing against realities that properly suggest something more prudent, it is not a bad one.

That is what first instincts are good for. This is what we aim at, what we try to achieve with public policies that are fair, equitable, and above all understandable. What function did my essay have other than to throw “distracting flack” into an important discussion? I had hoped it would put the real issues in relief, invoking stories of real people in real situations.

As the anonymous woman shouting from the back of the room on The Simpsons is always asking us, “What about the children?” Talking about undocumented, illegal families with kids in our schools who cannot read or write Spanish any better than I can, I shall more or less repeat myself. We cannot deport them. That would be a cruel humanitarian lapse, “returning” them to a “homeland” where many will be functionally illiterate. Nor by their now semi-permanent shadow presence should we permit their consignment to a new American underclass. That too would be a cruel humanitarian lapse.

So, yes, it would be good for our country to create a sure path to citizenship for those already here and do it in a way that honors all the legal immigrants who followed the rules, stood in line, and in many cases underwent long years of waiting before they were admitted. This, combined with strong border enforcement, would be a good thing.

Broadly, this is all I wanted to say, though in a winsomely forceful way.

Russell E. Saltzman is pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church, Kansas City, Missouri. His previous On the Square articles can be found here .


Russell Saltzman’s last column, “One Thousand Five-Hundred or So Uninformed Words on U.S. Immigration Policy” is available here .

Russell Saltzman’s “ winsomely forceful ” essay.

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