I feel sorry for the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who have crossed our southern border, desperate to escape the widespread violence and poverty in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
But the people I pity are the adults in this country who — wrapped up in selfishness, mean-spirited politics or misguided patriotism — have tried to make the lives of these vulnerable kids more miserable than they already are.
Protesters have tried to block buses taking young refugees to shelters. They gathered in cities across the country last weekend — including a dozen or so on a New Circle Road overpass in Lexington — to hold up signs such as, "1 flag, language, country" and "Americans first."
Some members of both parties in Congress are shamefully seeking to revoke refugee protections they passed during the Bush administration so these children can be deported without hearings.
Some Kentucky politicians fretted that these kids might be given shelter at Fort Knox pending deportation hearings, but Health and Human Services officials chose other locations. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, pandering to his right-wing base, called out the Texas National Guard at a cost of $12 million a month to assist the U.S. Border Patrol, which didn't ask for his help.
Republicans are blaming President Barack Obama for lax border security. But the problem of child refugees has been building for more than a decade. Overall, illegal immigration is down and deportations are up in the six years since George Bush was president.
A former colleague, Mike Luckovich of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, summed up my thoughts in a recent editorial cartoon. It showed the Statue of Liberty with a new inscription: "I'll trade you your huddled masses for my racist nitwits."
Immigration controversies are nothing new. "We have always been a nation of immigrants who hate the newer immigrants," comedian Jon Stewart said recently.
"Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens?" Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1751, about the time some of my ancestors were arriving in Philadelphia from a village near Stuttgart.
Ignoring the fact that the English took Pennsylvania from Native Americans, Franklin added that "swarthy" Germans "will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion."
America's immigration policies have always been twisted by prejudice, politics and powerful economic interests. Chinese immigrants were banned for 60 years after thousands were allowed in to build the Transcontinental Railroad because they would work cheaper than Irish immigrants.
On the eve of World War II, a ship carrying nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees from Hitler was turned back from our shore amid anti-immigration public sentiment. Anyone feel good about that decision?
Many of today's protesters insist that they aren't against legal immigration. And they point out — rightly — that America can't take in everybody. But our immigration system is broken, and protesters such as those hanging banners that say "No amnesty" are the biggest obstacle to fixing it.
Complex problems rarely have simple solutions. Progress in a representative democracy requires compromise, which today's angry fringe abhors.
There are a couple of claims that need addressing. The first is that these children are "not our problem." That assertion ignores the root causes of Latin America's chaos: a violent drug trade whose demand we fuel, and more than a century of U.S. support for oppressive "banana republics" — either to advance American business interests or out of anti-Communism paranoia.
The second claim is that undocumented immigrants are a drain on our economy and society. In most cases, I would bet they give more than they take. If all the undocumented immigrants in Central Kentucky disappeared tomorrow, the equine, agriculture, construction and many low-wage service industries would be crippled.
No, the United States cannot take in every refugee and immigrant. But I cannot look at the pictures of these frightened children without thinking of my grandson and his mother and sister when they were young.
The United States needs a just and rational immigration system. Until our dysfunctional elected leaders achieve that, I would much rather my tax dollars go toward treating these children with fairness and compassion rather than building more fences, which never have and never will solve the real problem.
This is a humanitarian crisis, both on our Southern border and in our national soul. How we resolve it will say a lot about what kind of people we are.