When I think about the immigration protests of the past weeks and anticipate the big one on May 1, I'm reminded of the advice we get from our family dentists: "Don't wait too long to take care of this. If you do, it will only get more painful and more expensive."
That's where the U.S. is with illegal immigration today. Twenty years after the Immigration Reform and Control Act amnesty, scant attention has been paid to enforcing immigration law. And since the first days of President George W. Bush's administration in 2001, not even a token effort has been made to curb illegal immigration.
The result: illegal immigrants, emboldened by the total lack of resistance to their arrival and encouraged by Bush's misleading comments that migrants come only to do jobs Americans won't, are marching, demanding and fully expecting to win amnesty.
Yet history tells us that amnesty will only lead to more illegal immigration.
In 1986 about 3 million illegal aliens resided in the U.S.; today's total, according to Wall Street investment bank Bear Stearns, is about 20 million.
Assuming that immediately after the 1986 amnesty the illegal alien count was effectively zero, then 20 million have arrived during the subsequent two decades.
Not only did the past amnesty not even come close to reaching it advertised goal of ending illegal immigration, the other half of the Bush concept - guest workers - has been a failure of equal magnitude.
In the 1986 Special Agricultural Workers program, fraud dominated, only a handful of guests went home and people supposedly here to work in the field soon left to find better jobs, once held by Americans, in construction and other trades.
One of the many problems the country faces in its deliberations about illegal immigration is that it is incorrectly perceived to be a victimless crime.
Last week, the Washington Times reported that an Alabama-based employment agency sent 70 U.S. citizens at contractor's requests to various Gulf States for post-Katrina clean up.
Shortly after the men began their work they were dismissed because, according to agency manager Linda Swopes, the employers told her "the Mexicans had arrived" and were "willing to work for less."
And also last week, the BBC documented the case of Florida tomato-pickers from Mexico and Central America who are paid $3.50 an hour, nearly $2 an hour less than the federal minimum wage.
The blame for today's dismal state of affairs lies with three parties:
• The White House: Bush has sent the message to Congress, to illegal aliens living here and to potential illegal aliens worldwide that the U.S. is not serious about enforcing immigration law. Bush's every act confirms that, to him, illegal immigration is inconsequential. Look, for example, at Bush's stealth appointment of the inexperienced Julie L. Myers as head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Myers, allegedly acting on orders from the White House, prevented ICE agents from attending the alien demonstrations.
• The media: The coverage of the proposed Congressional legislation and the demonstrations does not even reach sophomoric standards. Virtually no criticism has been leveled at any aspect of the controversies. Here are two good examples: no journalist has questioned the long-term consequences of anchor babies born to the 500,000 annual guest workers. And the media has repeatedly insisted that "a wall cannot be built" even though wherever you travel in America, you see nothing but major construction projects. A wall could be built as easily as a new Wal-Mart.
• The American public: As with most public policy issues, Americans refuse to get involved, preferring to hope for the best while deliberating on which cell phone plan to subscribe to.
What Congress will do when it reconvenes is anyone's guess. Through their marches, the illegal immigrants have put on a formidable display. But Americans - having seen the Mexican flag waving and anti-American sentiment of the first rallies - are finally awake.
If only sensible policies had been pursued over the last 20 years, today's divisiveness might have been avoided.
Joe Guzzardi, an instructor at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
First published: Thursday, April 20, 2006