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Illegal alien. It sounds like an epithet out of Germany in 1935. Something to be abhorred. Something to be rooted out, exorcised from the American fatherland by any means necessary. Lately we hear our elected representatives talk about illegal aliens with veiled references to potential terrorists and criminal elements. The demonizing of 11 million souls among us has begun.

The House of Representatives has passed a bill calling for the construction of a 700-mile wall between us and our neighbors. In the name of God, has history not taught us unequivocally about walls? No problem was ever solved, no situation ever made better, by building a wall between peoples. The euphoria we all felt when the Berlin Wall came down should serve as our warning not to turn around and rebuild it somewhere else.

President Bush would like to see our undocumented brothers and sisters allowed to stay, to do the work that no self-respecting American citizen will do. Although his position may be considered more moderate than wall building, it smacks of racism.

Senator George Allen of Virginia says that allowing illegal aliens to remain in the United States rewards them for illegal behavior. God forgive him! One wonders what sort of childhood experience haunts him, to make him think like that.

The president says we do not need to choose between being a law-abiding society and a compassionate society. This is an irrelevant remark. Who among us would even hesitate to break the law if it was a child of ours whose welfare was so much at stake as it is for those among the 11 million?

We speak much of exporting our American brand of freedom. And so we have — to Cuba, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and now Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps it’s time to look to the state of American freedom within our own borders.

We enjoy one of the greatest blessings imaginable, in that we live free. What if ever we were brought low, and our relative fortunes were reversed with Mexico’s? What if we had to fill out forms and wait years, on the dubious chance that we would be admitted to a land of prosperity and freedom, to do the work that Mexicans wouldn’t do? Such are the questions that ought to inform us as we struggle with the issue of immigration reform.

Recall the great words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Do we think these words are just an ode to the past, like Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” or Jimmy Driftwood’s “The Battle of New Orleans”? God forbid it! Our wars with England may be history, but the huddle masses still yearn to be free. Our nation’s freedom and opportunity beckon to the desperate peoples across the world no less today than at any time in our 230 years.

If we are to be faithful to the original spirit of freedom that gave birth to this nation, then we own the responsibility to keep open the Golden Door. This is not to say that we can abide totally unmanaged borders. Practical considerations must be met. But the spirit in which we engage the issue ought to be one of lending a hand to those still swimming alongside the lifeboat, and not one of trying to shove back into the water those who have managed to climb aboard.

Always and everywhere, American immigration law ought to further the relief of suffering, support the respect for human dignity, and nurture hope. This is what the ultimate goal of immigration reform ought to be, and not the expulsion or incarceration of human beings and certainly not the building of walls.

Freedom, prosperity and opportunity are like all other blessings, in that the more they are shared, the greater they become. And, conversely, the more we try to keep and defend them for our exclusive enjoyment, the smaller they shall be. If for no other reason than this, let us approach the immigration issue charitably, so that in giving hope to others we may better secure hope for ourselves.

Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife and three teenaged children. Chris can be contacted at cmills@gis.net