Intrigued, I read on, hoping to find out exactly when that was. First, I thought it might be some matter of semantics, so I checked Roget's Thesaurus. Sure enough, under "illegal" (an adjective, as Montini had used it) was "criminal." So it must not be semantics.
Perhaps there was a time when American law did not cover such activity. Certainly, throughout much of the 19th century, mass immigration was encouraged to help build and populate this country from one ocean to the other. However, Thomas Jefferson, referring to this country, once said, "A man cannot wear the same coat (he wore) as a boy." Times change; circumstances change; priorities change.
According to the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute, "The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (INA), with some major and many minor changes, continues to be the basic immigration law of the country." So, at least for the past 55 years, "illegal immigrant" and "criminal" have occupied space in the same synonym ballpark. Most Americans can't remember back further than that, so it's not like this concept just snuck up on us. It's been a criminal act to be here illegally for a long, long time.
To be sure, people in power have long shrugged at such things. The missus needed Consuelo to change little Buffy's diapers, and ConAgra needed Beto to pick lettuce. Sure, these people were here illegally, but "criminal" is such an ugly word, and it tends to spread its stain onto those who are complicit in that person's working here illegally.
The "time" mentioned in Montini's column is 1998. Ah, yes, a much simpler time, before people flew planes full of American citizens into buildings full of American citizens.
Like it or not, things changed that day. Maybe they didn't change instantly, but change was set in motion. And one of those changes involved a national awakening to the realization that we cannot forever remain a country if we cannot clearly define who, what and where America is.
It is at this point that I must pause to acknowledge that there are some people, well-meaning and pure of heart (if not always completely clear of mind) who sincerely believe that the fact that we have nations at all is the root of all of mankind's woes. There should be no borders, and we should just be citizens of Earth. I personally would love to wear shiny polyester and set my phaser on "stun," but we're simply not there yet as a civilization.
I believe that America can lead the way and serve as a beacon of tolerance and progressive thinking. But I also live in the real world, and I don't believe that my house is going to remain the way my family has worked to make it if we constantly leave the back door open and unlocked. Do I want the door to our southern border slammed shut permanently? No, of course not. But do I want our country to be in control of that door and when and how it is opened? Oh, hell yes, I do.
We're coming up on the 20th year (out of the last 28) that America has had a president named either Reagan or Bush, and I don't think that the country is the better for it. I remember watching Nightline on election night in 1980 and wondering how, only six years after Watergate, the country had veered so far to the right. I remember one Republican senator telling Ted Koppel, "Now it's our turn." I cringed and then stayed up late that night, wondering what and how it had happened.
I came to the realization that the Democrats had, in many ways, both great and small, abandoned their middle-class base and had done so by turning their backs on the concepts of right and wrong, instead moving toward what cynics on the right refer to as moral relativism. I know many good and decent people who think that adults cannot think in terms of right and wrong, that everything is shades of gray. I heartily disagree.
By ceding the moral high ground to the Republicans, Dems lost the elections of 1980, '84, '88 and 2004. (2000 doesn't count.) We have to get it back, or, at the very least, acknowledge that it exists.
For decades, illegal immigration into this country was allowed to fester and then explode, because the average American was lazy, apathetic and/or cheap. It has always been illegal, and "illegal" has always meant "criminal." We were just too self-absorbed to tighten our focus around right and wrong.
As a lifelong Democrat, I want almost desperately for someone from my party to win next year's presidential election. Iraq is not going to be the central issue; the economy and immigration will easily shove Bush's Folly aside. And the Democrats need to be on the right side of this. Securing our borders is not a Republican stance; it's an American stance.