What do Americans really think about immigrants?
Consider the case of Sgt. Dan Zapalski. As he prepared to go into battle, his colonel berated him for acting like a "fathead Pollack ... typical of all stupid, emotional, first-generation Americans -- impractical, burdensome and unreasonable."
What ticked off the colonel was Zapalski's refusal to be left behind. A leg wound suffered during the Normandy invasion had left him unfit for duty, but Zapalski didn't care. He wanted to go anyway.
The colonel begged the sergeant to think of his widowed, immigrant mother: What would she do if she lost her son?
"I pointed out that my widowed mother was proof of why I was obligated to go," Zapalski recalled in "September Hope," John McManus' book about World War II's Operation Market Garden. "[T]he principal reason being the debt to my country for taking care of her and giving her the opportunity to raise three kids without much trouble."
After a half-hour debate, the colonel relented. Zapalski parachuted into battle with his band of brothers.
Despite the often tendentious debate over immigration reform, the underlying truth is that an overwhelming majority of Americans -- on both sides of the debate -- believe that America is and should remain a nation of immigrants. Immigrants and their offspring were not only part of the greatest generation, they are and will remain a vital part of every generation.
And we agree on more than this. Americans on the Left and Right want the West Wing to support solutions that ensure that immigrants and nonimmigrants coming to America do so legally -- playing by the same rules as the rest of us -- and enjoying both the benefits and the obligations of living in a free society.
Our problem has always been how to get there from here. The 9/11 attacks pushed border security, visa and immigration issues to the front burner. In the decade since, Washington has utterly failed to agree on a good answer.
This year's presidential campaign has offered little reason to believe Washington will pursue a different path. Immigration wasn't even mentioned until the third debate. Even then, the candidates stressed their differences and little more.
The solution must begin where we all agree, not on what divides us. To restore its credibility on the issue, Washington will need to convince Americans that its border and immigration policy proposals are aimed at solving problems rather than pursuing electoral advantage.
So, what policies should be pursued? How about programs that help employers get the employees they need, when they need them? This will help the economy grow, providing jobs for the native-born as well.
How about solutions that respect U.S. sovereignty and uphold the value of American citizenship? An effective partnership with Mexico that helps that country address its challenges in promoting economic freedom, public safety and civil society? Promoting respect for the rule of law by enforcing the laws on the books -- and changing those that no longer command majority support? Trickiest of all, we need fair and practical solutions for those who remain unlawfully present in the country.
Yes, we need a comprehensive solution, but not another comprehensive bill. When Washington tries to bundle all its answers in one giant, bloated bill, and it usually creates as many problems as it solves.
To work through this complex issue, we need a president and a Congress who are willing to work with the American people -- and walk together with them each step of the way.
Whoever wins the election will have to start over if he wants to solve the mess we have made.
Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Examiner.