In my case, the luck was partly a matter of Cold War politics: as Soviet émigrés, my family and I were automatically eligible for residency as refugees. For that, I give thanks on every Thanksgiving Day and on many others. But I am well aware that many people whose plight was at least as bad (or worse, with far more extreme poverty and active persecution rather than general oppression) did not have the same privilege. People who enter this country in violation of the law but earn an honest living, harm no one, and contribute to society—often getting far less back in benefits than do citizens or legal residents—have my sympathy and respect.

Few would deny that there are real, vital national security issues related to border control. There is also a legitimate debate about the social consequences of unrestricted immigration. Yet it is also indisputable that efforts to crack down on immigration violations have often resulted in ungenerous, even inhumane policies that one might call truly un-American.

Think of people brought here as children who never went through the naturalization process, and who suddenly faced deportation to places they barely remembered because of a minor past transgression—a bar brawl, or public urination classified as a sex offense—that made them deportable due to changes in the law. Think of people with American spouses who face the Catch-22 of having to exit the United States to apply for permanent residency, and being barred from re-entry for three or even ten years because they were here illegally. Think of people arrested on suspicion of often technical immigration violations who are imprisoned in worse conditions than violent criminals.