If Washington really wanted to, it could decidedly shrink the number of immigrants illegally crossing the borders and living in the United States: Just enforce the law.
As it is, immigration law appears tough. But illegal immigrants and their employers can easily avoid being caught. Given that there are more than 10 million undocumented residents (a number growing by about 500,000 a year), the chances of an illegal immigrant being deported are minuscule. In 2003, only 445 undocumented workers were arrested at a job site in the US. That's out of a total population of 6.3 million illegal workers (a number that excludes nonworking spouses and children).
"We must replace the old 'nudge nudge, wink wink' system - overly strict laws that we can't, and in many cases don't even try to, uphold - with a new bargain: realistic laws, enforced to the letter," said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, at a Senate hearing late last month.
Americans would like Congress to tackle illegal immigration.
"There does seem to be, post-9/11, greater resistance to immigration," says Ana Maria Arumi, research director for Public Agenda in New York.
A recent survey of 1,004 adults by that nonpartisan public policy group found that tightening immigration ranked second among a list of proposals to improve US security. (Improving intelligence operations topped the list.) Three quarters of respondents gave the US a "C" or worse in protecting US borders. Nearly one-quarter gave a failing grade.
The public may still like the idealistic inscription on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...." To this, Americans have added, "but not your potential terrorists."