WASHINGTON - We are about to have a huge national debate on immigration. And it's going to be a dreadful experience.
It will be divisive and mean-spirited, and, finally, indecisive.
It will continue through next year's mid-term elections, when the entire House and a third of the Senate are up for re-election. It's going to be wrenching. It will pit Republicans against Republicans and Democrats against Democrats. Families at the dinner table will shout at each other over this.
Lady Liberty may keel over in a dead faint.
With estimates of illegal immigrants in the United States ranging from 8 million to 11 million, Republican pollster Frank Luntz says Americans are boiling with anger. Americans want President Bush to stop talking about his proposal for a guest-worker program, Mr. Luntz says. "They're furious. They're agitated about the cost of it - on schools, roads, hospitals."
Most Americans want immigrants to speak English and are frustrated that, in their own country, they can't understand many of the people they see every day.
Worried about increasing violence in the smuggling of immigrants across their borders, the Democratic governors of Arizona and New Mexico have declared state emergencies in order to get federal money for tougher enforcement.
But even in non-border states, there are ramifications. In Ohio, for example, where more and more undocumented workers are flocking, there are fewer jobs for them. And in Pennsylvania, legal immigrants are the fastest-growing element of new voters.
Mr. Bush's trip out West this past week was aimed at calming the furor that has erupted in his own party over his plan to let those already in the country illegally stay for six years as guest workers. They would then have to leave the country for at least a year before they could apply to return. Some Republicans say this is akin to an amnesty program, which they oppose with remarkable vehemence.
So Mr. Bush, who wants more open trade with Mexico and Canada, ratcheted up his rhetoric to say that there has to be an enforcement program to crack down on illegal immigrants and keep them from crossing the Mexican and Canadian borders into the United States.
Some of us thought, in the post 9/11 world, that enforcement had already been tightened. We were wrong.
The President now says he wants to hire 1,000 more Border Patrol agents for a total of nearly 13,000. He's for finishing a 14-mile bridge between Mexico and San Diego - half of Americans surveyed say they wouldn't mind paying for a 2,000-mile fence along the southern border. Mr. Bush also says he wants more planes flying along the border to spot people sneaking across.
There is enormous consternation in Congress over how to handle the growing problem of illegal immigration.
Some want a debate. Some, especially those with large numbers of Latino voters in their districts, want the issue to go away. Some are agonized about the families that will be torn apart if there is a crackdown to remove illegal immigrants. Businesses want access to large numbers of workers who will work cheaply.
There are those who have proposed ending the long-established practice of giving automatic citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants living in the United States.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) wants to permit undocumented workers in a guest-worker program to stay and apply for citizenship or residency after meeting certain obligations. His fellow Republican from Arizona, Sen. Jon Kyl, says illegal immigrants should have to leave the country before they apply for the guest-worker program.
Absent consensus, groups such as the Minuteman Project have formed. Its chapters want to organize border patrols consisting of volunteers who also tell authorities about businesses that employ suspected illegal immigrants. This raises the chilling thought of vigilantes running around with guns rounding up terrified women and children who speak no English and chasing day laborers into hiding.
To repeat, there is no consensus. As he did with Social Security, Mr. Bush is starting a huge, messy debate that, in an election year, will stir up great passions without a conclusion.
We need a debate on immigration, but we need one that is serious and unemotional and undertaken by grownups.
In Washington, that is an increasingly rare occurrence.