JACKSON, WYO. — In the big Albertsons supermarket in this resort area, a genial cashier with a heavy accent serves me. "Where are you from?" I ask. "Poland," he replies.
He's here on a special student visa that allows young Europeans to work in the US for a summer and perfect their English. Has he had a good experience? "Oh, yes. But I am sad because I must go home at the end of August, and I love America."
A few days later, my cashier is a smiling young woman, who also has a marked accent and is here on the same program. From Russia, she, too, loves America.
Both are here legally on a program that has tremendous friendship-building benefits for the US. Both must go home.
But on Friday nights over at the Western Union counter, a crowd of Spanish-speaking men send money from their weekly paychecks back to Mexico. It's a certainty many of them are here illegally. They're largely manual laborers, lured to Wyoming by Jackson's housing construction boom, or perhaps by the natural gas energy boom in nearby Pinedale.
They're part of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the US, located especially in Western states. Many have crossed furtively and illegally into the states that border Mexico, making the hazardous desert crossing in search of more prosperity than they can hope for in their homelands. If not caught by immigration agents, some will spend their lifetimes here, creating families of children born as US citizens.
They're part of America's enormous challenge of illegal immigration, which must be resolved. It isn't being solved by the Border Patrol agents who are catching only a fraction of those who continue to cross over illegally. It cannot be resolved by the self-appointed "minutemen," who recently stationed themselves on the Arizona-Mexico border in an effort - more symbolic than effective - to stanch the flow. And clearly, the 11 million already here can't all be transported back to their homelands.
The governors of Arizona and New Mexico have declared an emergency along their borders with Mexico, as illegal immigrants clash with law enforcement officials, and smuggling, drug trafficking, and crime have become rife. Mexico's President Vicente Fox says the need for a migration accord with the US that would allow more people to work legally north of his border is urgent and would do much to improve security.
The American economy, particularly in agriculture and construction, has become dependent on large numbers of migrant workers. What's needed is some form of temporary legal work permit for those who come here, and then strict enforcement of the immigration laws presently being broken.
Two proposed laws address this problem: one, drafted by Senators McCain and Kennedy, seeks to establish a reasonable temporary worker program; the other, proposed by Senators Kyl and Cornyn, argues for much stricter enforcement. There needs to be an accommodation that would encompass both goals.
The crux of the problem is the 11 million illegal immigrants already here. The proponents of both pending bills agree that the migrants have broken US laws and must pay a penalty. But the suggested punishments vary greatly. The Kyl-Cornyn bill would require illegals to leave the country and reapply for permission to return legally. The McCain-Kennedy bill suggests that they each pay a $2,000 fine and all back taxes, and then have a probationary six-year period to learn English and study civics before seeking permanent status.
Neither the voluntary departure of 11 million people nor their enforced deportation seems likely. Indeed, such an exodus would cause a crisis in some areas of the economy, particularly agriculture.
As Tamar Jacoby writes in the conservative Weekly Standard: "Sooner or later we all will have to face the fact that most of the 11 million are here to stay, and it is in our interest as much as theirs to find a way for them to do so legally. There is simply no practical alternative. The only real question before us is how to structure the transition."
• John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City.