The White House and Republicans in Congress are clashing over...

The White House and Republicans in Congress are clashing over President Barack Obama’s immigration reform bill, which includes an eight-year pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Credit: Michael Osbun

The White House and Republicans in Congress clashed this weekend over President Barack Obama's immigration reform bill. It includes an eight-year pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants -- a subject that has become the focus of renewed debate as Congress works on its own bill.

Public opinion is becoming more sympathetic to some sort of route toward citizenship: In a recent Associated Press poll, it was favored by 62 percent of Americans, up from 50 percent in 2010. This is a welcome trend that reflects a commonsense approach to justice -- and shows American values at their best.

But immigration hawks see amnesty proposals as rewarding lawlessness. They scoff at stories of hardworking, peaceful men and women who live in the United States without proper documentation, pointing out that these people break the law by their very presence here.

Many Americans, however, sense that such lawbreaking (a civil, not criminal offense) is different from the ordinary kind. Murder, rape and robbery are always illegal. But whether one's entry to the United States is deemed legal or illegal depends on bureaucratic regulations and political exigencies -- and, sometimes, on arbitrary selection by lottery.

I have personal experience with the issue: In 1980, when I was a teenager, my family came here from what was then the Soviet Union. We received automatic refugee status -- with a track to permanent residency and citizenship -- as Soviet Jews fleeing oppression. It was an opportunity for which I am forever grateful. Yet I am also aware that we received a special break due to Cold War politics, a break that people from many parts of the world (including Communist countries such as China) did not get despite equally valid claims to persecution.

That's why my first reaction to illegal immigrants is not "I'm here legally and that makes me better," but "If not for luck, I could have been in their shoes." Modern-day native-born Americans who pride themselves on the fact that their immigrant ancestors came to this country lawfully should also remember that in those days, immigrants usually faced far fewer legal hurdles.

American immigration law has a long, complicated, and often unsavory history. Until the late 19th century, entry into the United States was essentially unregulated, though naturalization was off-limits to blacks until the 1860s and to Asians until the 1950s. Twentieth-century immigration restrictions were often based on explicitly discriminatory racial and ethnic criteria.

Even in recent times, when such legalized prejudice would be unthinkable, anti-immigration panics have led to inflexible, cruel and downright un-American policies. People who were brought here as children and never formally naturalized have found themselves facing deportation to native countries they barely know because of a past trivial brush with the law, from pot possession to a minor scuffle. Legal immigrants traveling outside the United States have been barred from returning, sometimes for several years, because an innocent error made their re-entry illegal.

Critics of free-for-all immigration have legitimate points. The welfare state can attract dependents rather than workers. Modern identity politics often discourage cultural assimilation; some pro-immigration militants take the view that immigrants shouldn't have to conform to American societal norms or even learn English. And, in the age of terrorism, America's sworn enemies can easily take advantage of open borders.

But a rational policy can address these concerns while embracing those who come here in search of freedom, dignity and opportunity.

The economics of immigration is a separate and complex subject on which debates can easily get bogged down in competing figures. But in terms of our spirit as a nation, it is far better to err on the side of forgiveness -- particularly in an area where the law is often a matter of technicality more than justice.