Commentary: Illegal immigration in the real world

I live in the real world.

In the real world, illegal immigration is a sideshow issue of provocative statements with little resemblance to the truth. It's political calculation minus moral imperative.

For example, during the recent Republican presidential debate, Michele Bachmann said she wanted to build a fence around Mexico.

As president, Mitt Romney says he will stop illegal immigration completely.

In the real world, Mexico is the United States' third most lucrative trading partner – just behind Canada and China. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly $261 billion has changed hands so far this calendar year between the United States and Mexico.

Why don't we lock down the border between the U.S. and Mexico? Count to 261 billion and the answer will become clear. It's also why going after employers – the people attracting and hiring undocumented workers – will always be a political crowd pleaser that breaks down when applied in the real world.

Recently, the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill requiring private businesses to use a federal program that checks the immigration status of all job applicants.

It's called E-Verify.

Guess who is against it? Groups within the tea party movement who don't think private businesses should have to enforce immigration laws. And some of California's biggest agricultural employers, who fear more government regulation will kill jobs.

It's always this way. The public, especially in tough economic times, pushes for greater immigration security. But business interests always win, so some states push back with Draconian immigration laws that satisfy the various strains of xenophobia in the public, but punish only the littlest people on the immigration food chain – the immigrants themselves.

In this void, where Democrats and Republicans are equally guilty, men of God from Sacramento are waging a lonely battle preaching reason and morality to politicians exploiting immigration fears and to a public that just wants to be mad.

One is Bishop Jaime Soto of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, a giant on immigration reform for years.

Another is a relative newcomer: the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, a charismatic Christian pastor with an Elk Grove address and a growing national profile.

Rodriguez is conservative. He didn't vote for Barack Obama in the last election, and you get the feeling he won't vote for him in the next.

Rodriguez describes himself politically as a libertarian who is registered as an independent. But his leanings and sympathies are clearly GOP-friendly. He considers Grover Norquist, the anti-tax titan, a friend. And as president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, he is targeting his immigration reform message to the most conservative among us: the tea party and Christian evangelicals.

To Rodriguez's thinking, if you sway them, you sway the GOP. You sway the GOP and maybe you break the logjam in Washington, D.C. Maybe you bring the first sweeping immigration reform since the 1980s.

What kind of reform? "I'm not an amnesty guy or an open borders guy," Rodriguez said last week.

To begin with, after years of lobbying in Washington, Rodriguez is convinced that no elected officials or federal bureaucrats believe what some in the public believe – that all of our immigration problems can be solved by deportations.

So what is a reasonable alternative? To Rodriguez, it boils down to two words: just integration.

You separate the immigrants who come to America and commit crimes from the workers and families who can be productive members of society. You deport the rapist, but not the A student.

Rodriguez is willing to consider laws that would confer legal status on some immigrants – but also deny them the right to full American citizenship.

"The first generation of immigrants would pay the piper (for being undocumented) by never getting U.S. citizenship," Rodriguez said. "I think we should at least have the conversation."

This wouldn't be amnesty. Rodriguez has supported legislation where immigrants would pay a fine for being undocumented. He has supported federal laws containing morals clauses in which immigrants seeking legal status could be deported for committing crimes.

Born in New Jersey and raised in Pennsylvania, Rodriguez's ancestry is Puerto Rican. He's 41 and an ordained Assemblies of God minister who has been preaching since he was a teenager.

On immigration, he's trying to meld the practical with the just.

"It's not just border security," he said. "One hundred years from now, what is America going to look like? That's a mature conversation we need to have."

What would he say in such a conversation? "During tough economic times people fear 'the other.' But with the Hispanic community, here is a community that is committed to faith, the same faith of our Founding Fathers," he argued. "They are committed to family and the hard work we saw in Plymouth Rock and Jamestown. This community will change nothing in the foundational values that made us great."

A lot more people will listen to the lies of Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney than the truths of faith leaders like Rodriguez.

But he's out there preaching, trying to convert one person at a time.