WASHINGTON -- A taste of how low the immigration debate can go spilled out when Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California, suggested that we give jobs now held largely by illegal immigrants to convicts. "I say, let the prisoners pick the fruits!" he said.
Ah, yes, involuntary servitude. I think we tried that once before in America. Didn't work out.
Yet even a remark as memorably goofy as Mr. Rohrabacher's stumbles onto a troubling truth: If we did look to prison workers to save certain industries, we would find an unfortunately growing labor pool.
America's porous borders and bulging prisons both stem from a dirty little open secret: our national desire to live life on the cheap.
Yes, it's cheaper, at least in the short run, to lock up people after they commit crimes than to invest earlier in the lives of poor, undereducated children, long before they spiral downward into lives of crime.
And it's cheaper for consumers to give a wink and a nod to massive illegal immigration as long as it helps them to avoid paying more for restaurant meals, produce, home construction and various domestic services such as nannies, housekeepers and gardeners.
Republicans, notable as they usually are for lock-step party discipline, are divided over immigration because the country always has been deeply divided on immigration.
We're a nation of immigrants, voluntarily or involuntarily, who never have been quite sure of how many new immigrants are enough - or what kind of immigrants will make the best Americans.
The 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli law legalized 3 million illegal immigrants in a mass amnesty, accompanied by new employer sanctions and other get-tough measures that didn't stay tough very long.
Now, 20 years later, Congress finds itself grappling with an estimated 11 million more illegal immigrants and an unexpected but understandable opposition to President Bush's proposed plan to allow temporary "guest workers" to take "jobs Americans don't want."
In a revealing sign of the times, Mr. Bush's plans have run into a congressional stalemate: Republicans vs. Republicans.
House Republicans in December passed a get-tough bill that, among other breathtaking provisions, would turn the nation's illegal immigrants into felons and criminalize anyone who assisted them in any way.
Just what we need: more convicts. Perhaps they, too, can pick fruits, if Mr. Rohrabacher gets his way.
Fortunately, the Senate responded last week with a recipe of measures that returns the debate to a realm resembling reason and reality. The Senate's proposed bill would boost border security but also allow immigrants already here to work their way to legal status, temporary or permanent, depending on how long they have been here.
The heated process to reconcile the two philosophies could drag on, maybe even past the November elections, which would be just fine with quite a few nervous incumbents in both parties.
Congress should deliver what it promised in the 1986 legislation but failed to deliver: better border controls to keep new illegal immigrants out and an orderly process to lift those who already are here from the underground economy and into the mainstream work force.
Neither goal is perfect. Hard-liners oppose another amnesty, and no matter how high we build fences or walls along the border, some new folks will sneak in - even if only by overstaying tourist or student visas. But we can't let the pursuit of perfection be the enemy of needed, if imperfect, improvements.
Past immigration reforms failed not because they were bad laws but because they were not enforced. Our country, including its many newcomers, deserves better than that. Our leaders need to come up with balance in our immigration policy, not more baloney.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.