My recent columns on illegal immigration and what to do about it brought a flood of reader responses. Many of them heatedly rejected my arguments for treating such immigrants as a resource too valuable to reject and for finding a way to make them legal.
''If making illegals legal is the preferred solution to the problem of illegal immigration,'' wrote Bob from Mission Viejo, Calif., please advise ASAP which laws, rules, and/or regulations I (a citizen) can break, ignore, and/or flout, how many times I can do so, and what rewards I will receive for disregarding the law? If 12 to 14 million people have no regard for the law and get rewarded for violating it, why punish me for my minor transgressions?
Like many readers, Matt Meade of Richmond, Va., argued that ''the burden on our health and education systems is being severely raised by illegal immigrants. The unintended consequence of amnesty would be a blitz of illegal immigration that would push us to the brink. That is what happened after amnesty was granted two decades ago, and most likely, it would be far worse today. The only form of amnesty that makes sense would be for a fixed number of slots. Once those slots are granted, any illegal found in this country should face harsh legal consequences, as should their employers. By creating strong disincentives, we can both assimliate those who are here now, and prevent further illegal immigration.
''I hope,'' Matt drily concluded, ''this sets you straight.''
Ed Wallick of Los Angeles offered some particulars:
''In the area of Los Angeles where I live, emergency rooms have shut down, schools are deluged with illegal immigrant kids who are not literate in their own language, let alone English, and a recent survey of prisoners showed that 25 percent of the incarcerated are illegals. If I can't find an emergency room to go to when I am sick, if I have to send my kids to private school at 10K per year, if I have to watch my neighborhood deteriorating because of crime and littering and graffiti, where are the savings?
''Your argument is one sided and simplistic, and the reason why so many Americans are misguided on the issue of illegals is that they do not live in the epicenter of illegal immigration, which is Los Angeles, as I do.
They will understand what I am writing about as the relative percentage of illegals increases in their areas, but by then, it will be too late to do anything about it.
From Wakefield, Mass., Jock S. reflected the conviction of many readers that illegal immigrants pose a uniquely menacing danger to Americans.
''Imagine that an illegal immigrant, driving an unregistered, uninsured car, kills everyone in your family,'' he wrote. ''Would that convince you of the seriousness of this invasion? Don't give up on a problem just because it hasn't affected you personally yet.''
A thoughtful critique came from Alan Roebuck in California, who addressed himself to the question of assimilation. ''There is, of course, no universal answer to the general question, How many outsiders is 'too many,' but it seems clear to me that we have gone well beyond the 'too many' point,'' he wrote. When I responded that a lower percentage of the population is foreign-born today than was the case 100 years ago,'' he rejoined:
''But 100 years ago we didn't have a fully-developed leftist establishment encouraging minorities, both native-born and immigrant, to think of themselves as members of their ethnic group rather than as Americans. . . . It is clear to me that many of today's immigrants and children of immigrants do not wish to assimilate, and this is not just because they just happened to make that choice. It is because of the ideas that they imbibe: leftism, multiculturalism, pious Islam . . . and Mexican irredentism, to name just a few. I see no effective spiritual force opposing these trends, just a weakened idea of an America defined by freedom, democracy and tolerance.''
But other readers wrote to agree with the position I had taken.
''Thank you for taking a sane, practical, and humane stance on illegal immigration,'' said Steve West of Acton, Mass. ''So many conservatives give the knee-jerk, 'principled' response, 'What part of illegal don't you understand?' Such an attitude does nothing to solve the problem, and discourages real discussion. Your position is a breath of fresh air from the Republican side of the divide. For me personally, the issue comes down to a very simple idea: I don't want our nation to become one that ships millions of people away in railroad cars.''
A young Republican attending Fordham University in the Bronx, N.Y., offered similar words of support. ''I was excited to read your pro-immigration article this morning,'' wrote Joe Marutollo. ''I often think that some parts of my Republican Party forget that we are a nation of immigrants and the immensely important role immigrants play in our economy and society. Kudos on a courageous article and I look forward to continue reading your work.''
A fair number of readers wrote to tell me how surprised they were to find themselves agreeing with me. One such message came from Bill Harrison of Rockland, Mass. ''Jeff, congratulations on an a terrific piece in today's Globe on immigration! I am usually pulling my hair out after reading your column and was prepared this morning to do the same.''
Miriam Chernoff of Waltham, Mass., weighed some of the contending issues: ''I rarely agree with you, however, I overwhelmingly support your articles on immigration. Although you focused on the economic advantages to the US of having a large immigrant worker pool, I also think it is morally wrong to restrict immigration. Perhaps it's because my grandparents came to the US with nothing and their children did very well, so I identify with the struggles of immigrants . . . . Why do you think Americans are so afraid of foreigners? Most of us have roots that go back to other countries. My sense is that it's about a personal economic comfort zone. I know that I struggle to make ends meet these days and I have a pretty good job and parents still living to back me up. . . . I think it's the fear of personal injury in an economic sense that makes people afraid that others might take away something they have or want or deserve.''
Finally, there was a small but noticeable amount of mail from readers who wrote not about illegal immigration but about an issue they see as analagous: illegal drugs. After quoting a passage from my column - ''If tens of millions of drivers consistently break the interstate speed limit, do we assume that they are all criminals who should lose their licenses and be banned from the highways? No: A more plausible explanation is that the speed limit is too low for safe highway driving and ought to be raised''
John Madfis of Auburndale, Mass. made the comparison: ''After reading your column, I thought of war on drugs, especially marijuana. Polls show that about 40% of Americans have smoked at some point in their lives or currently smoke marijuana. President Clinton, VP Al Gore, President Bush, Senator Kerry, and most of the Democratic candidates vying for the 2004 presidential nomination admitted smoking marijuana at some point in their lives. I would assume that a high percentage of members of Congress have done likewise. 2008 Presidential candidate Obama has also admitted using drugs in the past. 'Do we assume that they are all criminals?'
''I don't know if you have ever written on this subject, but I urge to consider writing an editorial on this insane, costly war that has been a miserable failure and done tremendous damage to many Americans and other countries across the globe. It is time to end this war. I hope you agree.'' That's one I'm still giving some thought to. It is certainly a meaty subject for a possible future column.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.