In the mid-1990s, when the collapse of the Mexican economy produced a wave of illegal immigration to Arizona, I did volunteer work at a Phoenix school that was struggling to meet the needs of a few hundred Mexican children who spoke only Spanish. Even as I sought to help ease the transition for both sides, I thought it would be better for everyone if the influx subsided.
That explains my contradictory reactions of appreciation for and disagreement with George Will' s open-arms pronouncement on "Fox New Sunday" regarding Central Americans streaming across the Mexican border into Texas. It is burning up the blogosphere, drawing delight from the left and dismay from the right.
Said Will, prescribing a sweeping solution for the 57,000 unaccompanied Central American youth, "We ought to say to these children, 'Welcome to America. You're going to go to school and get a job and become Americans.'"
Applying some arithmetic, Will added: "We have 3,141 counties in this country. That would be 20 [children] per county. The idea that we can't assimilate these 8-year-old 'criminals' with their teddy bears is preposterous."
I admire Will's charitable inclination. It shows a fundamental decency that has been lacking in some of the public reaction. It is strong evidence of a kind heart in response to those who, in some instances are fleeing truly life-threatening circumstances.
But it goes way too far. Its generosity is flawed by a lack of basic understanding of the dimensions of the issues. It lacks the normal prudence of Will's conservative principles.
It shows an American tendency that Will himself lamented 29 years ago, when he wrote of the "constricted political imagination natural in a sheltered, liberal nation to which history has been kind", where leaders are "apt to underestimate the terrible dynamic" that confronts them.
As he unfurled his blueprint for the installation of flashing green lights at the border, Will showed no understanding of the enormous fact that the 57,000 minors he proposes to welcome are only a small part of the Central American exodus.
There are perhaps an equal number of children traveling with parents who have decided to come north as what our government calls "family units". They are being detained by the Border Patrol and then released into the country with the order to appear later in court for a deportation hearing that will take place months or years in the future, or not at all.
According to an internal memo from Deputy Border Patrol Chief Ronald Vitiello, the number of minors detained by the Border Patrol is expected to reach 90,000 this year and 142,000 next year.
There is a vast river of desperate humanity rising in Latin America, straining to flow northward, already eroding the dam of restraint that has long been a mostly psychological barrier constructed by the belief that the mighty United States wants to control its border.
When I was in the Rio Grande Valley last month reporting on the influx, I was struck by the number of single mothers traveling with children. While some talked of violence back home, most were fleeing poverty, the abandonment of shiftless fathers, and the indifference of corrupt governing oligarchies.
Does George Will think we should welcome them all? Is he aware of the correlation between impoverished, unskilled single mothers and a host of social problems? Does he think we can solve that problem, too?
If Will has his way, I think we can expect to see in many more places the sort of backlash that swelled in Arizona when the influx of the 1990s was not restrained. There the illegal immigrant population grew from an estimated 88,000 in 1990 to 560,000 in 2008.
The resulting transformation was so stunning, so straining on schools, hospitals, social service institutions, and neighborhoods that it eroded trust in government, undermined public willingness to accept all newcomers and bred the public outrage that produced a host of anti-illegal immigration laws and initiatives.
We can be sure that little of the impact will be felt around George Will's neighborhood in Chevy Chase, Md., where the median home price is $926,000. They can prescribe open borders with equanimity because for them the cascading consequences will be somebody else's problem.
Will's open-arms prescription is reminiscent of President Jimmy Carter's 1979 effort to get China to allow more people to emigrate. Journalist Patrick Tyler recorded the memorable response of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
Tyler wrote that Deng "leaned forward, spreading his arms, and said to Carter, "Fine. How many do you want? Ten million?"