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A step in at least some direction

In his vigorous dissent from the Supreme Court's recent ruling on Arizona's immigration law, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that if the 13 original states knew that they would be barred from enforcing their own immigration laws, they would not have joined the union.

Maybe. But then again, if South Carolina knew that slavery would one day be abolished, that would have been a deal-breaker, too.

Luckily, the native tribes in North America didn't have much of an immigration policy. Otherwise some of us would still be pulling up potatoes in Connemara.

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The court's decision to throw out most of Arizona's law except for its most-controversial bit - the provision which requires police to determine the immigration status of suspects - managed a rare feat. People on both sides of the debate claimed victory. Mitt Romney, however, still figured out a way to say nothing: He bravely asserted that it's time to solve the problem of illegal immigration.

No kidding!

Romney doesn't have a plan to achieve resolution, but then again, he's not alone. That's because there isn't much of a middle ground. Either we have to deport 11 million illegals - perhaps fewer than this number because many have left the U.S. of late as a result of the economic downturn here - or we have to find a way to allow 11 million people to become citizens, even though they've all broken the law.

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I'm not sure how you do either one, but then again, I'm not running for president, and for this we are all very lucky.

One thing is certain: you have to have a plan. Right now, neither candidate really does, although President Obama's decision to stop the deportation of illegals who were brought into the U.S. by their parents is a step in some direction. Whether it's the right direction or not, at least it's a step towards some kind of resolution.

It's hard to imagine that anybody really believes that the U.S. has the will and resources to round up every illegal and send him or her back to wherever - and wherever includes, let's remember, Ireland.

Some illegals have been here for decades, a point that Newt Gingrich made during the early Republican primaries. Gingrich is not exactly a warm and fuzzy type, but he did have a soft spot for the plight of illegals who have made a home in the U.S., had children (and even, at this point, grandchildren) and have, despite the odds, become productive non-citizens.

Not everybody shares Gingrich's views, least of all Justice Scalia. Many Republicans (as Gingrich discovered during the primaries) take a hard line on illegal immigration. They oppose even the slightest suggestion that the government create a path to citizenship for the millions of illegals. Many angry voices argue that the illegals are felons, that they committed a crime upon entering the U.S. and so deserve nothing but handcuffs and a one-way ticket back to wherever.

The Tea Party faction of the party is driving the Republican response, and the Tea Party prides itself on avoiding compromise whenever possible.

So if Mitt Romney is looking for a middle ground, he's not going to find it within his own party. The GOP's rank and file will accept nothing except promises to give the boot to 11 million people, although precisely how this is going to be done remains a mystery.

Democrats have always been a good deal more sympathetic to immigrants than Republicans, but this time around, the issue is a lot more complicated than it was back in the days when coffin ships were disgorging the "scattered debris of the Irish nation," as Dagger John Hughes

described the Famine-era immigrants.

They may not have been very popular, but Irish immigrants (and Italians, and Jews, and others) faced very few legal obstacles to citizenship in the late 19th Century. In fact, Tammany Hall was routinely criticized for naturalizing immigrants with amazing speed and efficiency - just in time for election day.

Today, of course, rules and laws govern the movement of people to the U.S., and rightly so. Democrats and others who would like to regularize the lives of illegal immigrants find themselves on the defensive. Lots of people believe that the illegals deserve no path to citizenship because they are, by definition, criminals. Harsh, but that's precisely what many people seem to believe.

What's more, the threat of Islamic terrorism has added a new dimension to the immigration debate. No politician can, or should, deny the need for secure borders (although few people remember that the 9/11 terrorists entered the U.S. legally). Those who wish us harm should absolutely fear the power and reach of Homeland Security.

The threat of terrorism means that more-aggressive border patrols can't be seen as merely a nativist reaction to Mexican immigration. I certainly hope that if terrorists in Pakistan see video of Texas Rangers patrolling the Rio Grande by land, sea, and air, they'll think twice about trying to enter the U.S. without a trace.

So if the Supreme Court decision in Arizona v. United States seems muddled, maybe that's a good thing. Because the only easy answers belong to the likes of Justice Scalia. And that's no answer at all.