Common sense about the nation's immigration policy vanishes from the room whenever someone asks, "What part of illegal don't you understand?" It's a real conversation killer, that line. People who use it aren't interested in a discussion. They think law enforcement agencies should round up the estimated 11.5 million men, women and children who aren't authorized to live in the U.S. and deport them.
People fixated on the notion of illegality — the crossing of a border without papers — aren't interested in knowing why these immigrants might have come here, what hardships they experienced.
They don't care if the immigrants are employed and contributing to the economy in some way.
"What part of illegal don't you understand?"
They're not interested in hearing how immigrants support small businesses. Nor do they care that the undocumented pay taxes and contribute to the Social Security Trust Fund. (Stephen Goss, its chief actuary, estimated that by 2007, the trust fund had received a net benefit of at least $120 billion from "unauthorized immigrants," and contributions from undocumented workers now amount to about $12 billion annually.)
The strident aren't interested in giving the children of illegal immigrants a break on in-state college tuition, or any other benefit.
And offering amnesty and the possibility of citizenship is out of the question.
"What part of illegal don't you understand?"
As you might tell, I've had my share of dialogue with hard-heads on this subject. Others — fortunately, many others, including people in leadership positions — see not only the complexity of the issue but the need for a logical and humane approach.
Baltimore's mayor is one of them.
Stephanie Rawlings-Blakeknows the city's population needs to grow if its tax base is to expand. Making immigrants feel welcome here is essential. "Our ambition is to grow Baltimore by 10,000 families in the next 10 years," she told a group of Latino immigrants last week. "I think you can help me with that."
Showing savvy and brass, Ms. Rawlings-Blake issued an executive order that serves as both an olive branch and welcome sign to immigrants at a time when other communities (Frederick County, for instance) and whole states (Arizona, Alabama) are trying to make life more difficult for newcomers.
The mayor's order prohibits city employees, including the police, from inquiring about the immigration status of people they encounter in the course of city business.
Ms. Rawlings-Blake's order came after the Department of Homeland Security announced the extension into Baltimore of the Secure Communities program, which provides fingerprints collected by local cops to the federales.
This program has been in other parts of Maryland and the nation for a few years now, and the Obama administration is expanding it.
In the fiscal year that ended last October, Secure Communities led to the deportations of 216,698 people who were serving time in prison and jails for felonies and misdemeanors, according toU.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That included 1,119 convicted killers and 5,848 convicted sex offenders. The rest had drug offenses, drunken-driving convictions, or they had been arrested while crossing borders.
The New York Times reported last fall that two-thirds of those deported had spouses or children who were U.S. citizens.
No one should object to the deportation of killers and rapists. But Secure Communities doesn't seem to make a distinction between an illegal who commits murder and one who gets caught selling some dope or smoking reefer. And apparently having a spouse or child who are citizens doesn't make any difference.
The mayor of Baltimore has no control over that. There's nothing in Ms. Rawlings-Blake's order that will stop this from happening. Baltimore police will continue to arrest whomever they have to arrest, and they will continue to share fingerprint data with the FBI, which will share it with Homeland Security and ICE.
The deportations of people caught in the ICE dragnet will continue, and the mayor knows that.
But in issuing her executive order, all dressed up as an act of defiance against the heartless feds, she sent a welcoming message to the many immigrants, legal or illegal, who work long hours and multiple jobs, who do not take up space in our jails, who have an ambition to own a house or start a business some day: You are welcome in Baltimore, no questions asked. Sanctuary! Sanctuary!
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of the Midday show on WYPR-FM. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.