CHICAGO -- The immigration protests held across the country last Monday serve as a perfect Rorschach test: What reaction did you have to the sight of hundreds of thousands of immigrants marching down American streets, calling on Congress to accommodate them? Dismay? Ambivalence? Admiration?
A lot of political debates turn on facts and arguments. This one is mostly a matter of competing emotions.
Among many conservatives, the emotion is outrage. Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi said the protests "make me mad." Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado fumed, "All these folks that are here illegally know they can protest brazenly."
Mr. Tancredo is one of the prime supporters of a bill passed last year by the House that would criminalize being in this country without authorization, erect a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and bar illegal immigrants already here from gaining legal status. That bill, more than anything else, is what has brought so many immigrants into the streets to demonstrate - which seems only to harden the views of the hard-liners.
Former presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan wrote in The American Conservative magazine, "That hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens, all subject to deportation, would defiantly march under foreign flags in U.S. cities suggests the government of the United States has lost its moral authority." Another contributor said the rallies show "a more menacing side" of the illegal population.
But up close, that side was nowhere to be found. The mood in Chicago was cheerful, and the behavior was peaceable. Despite the influx of nearly 400,000 people, Chicago police reported no arrests and only one minor scuffle.
This was not a mob bent on upending the social order. Instead, the marchers were asking, in a sober and restrained manner, to be included in that social order. They were not looking for a fight - they were hoping to avoid one.
As for foreign flags, it will come as news to veterans of St. Patrick's Day parades that banners of other countries are inherently offensive. But by my count, foreign flags in this protest were outnumbered at least 5-to-1 by Old Glory - not counting all the stars and stripes on T-shirts and caps.
The complaint about "foreign flags" is especially nervy coming from Mr. Lott, who as a cheerleader at the University of Mississippi used to carry a Confederate battle flag onto the football field. Unlike the architects of the Confederacy, those people waving flags from Mexico or Honduras never tried to tear this country asunder.
Conservatives defend the Confederate flag as a legitimate way for Southerners to honor their heritage. It doesn't occur to Mr. Lott and Mr. Buchanan that maybe immigrants brandish the flags of their mother countries for similar reasons, not out of contempt for America.
True, many of these people are violating immigration laws. But whose fault is that? Critics act as though we've been invaded by hordes of outsiders. In fact, Americans have invited them in by declining to enforce our laws and providing them with ample employment opportunities.
The furor over a Spanish version of the national anthem revives fears that Latino immigrants have no interest in assimilating into American society. In fact, today's immigrants behave pretty much like those of the past. Almost all second-generation Hispanics speak fluent English, and 72 percent of third-generation Hispanics speak nothing but English at home.
The closed-border crowd thinks those who violate immigration rules represent a danger to law and order. But the opposite is true: Latino immigrants are more law-abiding and less inclined to criminality than native-born Americans.
Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson attributes the steep drop in crime in the 1990s to the arrival of so many foreigners. His study, he writes, "found that immigrants appear in general to be less violent than people born in America, particularly when they live in neighborhoods with high numbers of other immigrants."
The immigration hard-liners insist on seeing everything illegal immigrants do in the worst light - as hostile and subversive. The protests made it clear that they don't want to destroy our way of life. They only want to share in it.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.