We’re a nation of immigrants. But we also must defend our borders because we are a sovereign nation where the rule of law is paramount. These two cliched strains of thought define the sides of the debate over immigration in the United States.

It seems like we’re perpetually debating: Do immigrants take jobs from hardworking Americans, or do they do the jobs we don’t want to do? Should we raise or lower our immigrant quotas? Is our unique American culture being diluted or enriched by these immigrants? And finally, what do we do with the massive number of illegal immigrants — more than 12 million according to the Pew Hispanic Center — already in the United States?

What begins as a sort of philosophical debate intensifies when it concerns someone you personally know and love. After all, who cares about politics when one of your good friends is about to be taken away from you? Our pure American culture might be on the verge of total collapse from marauding hordes of invading illegals, but surely just one more couldn’t hurt.

Tope Awe is one such case. Ms. Awe — a University of Wisconsin pharmacy student — came with her parents and her brothers to this country when she was only 3 years old. She was the Multicultural Resident Consultant at Chadbourne Residential College and the co-chair of the African Students Association. She and her brother were detained March 27 in Milwaukee for overstaying their visas. They have since been released, but Ms. Awe must wear an ankle bracelet and keep in constant contact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Regardless of whether her family had broken the law, how does deporting Ms. Awe solve anything? The United States had already invested in her education and the health of her family — her father was given a visa to stay in the United States for kidney disease treatments in 1989 — and they decide to deport her a year before earning her degree? Our immigration system is clearly devoid of compassion and common sense.

It’s good news that Ms. Awe was not deported — although that remains a distinct possibility. But it’s a real deficiency of the immigration system that it expends resources trying to deport those immigrants who work hard and play by the rules. Ms. Awe was a popular, involved and hard-working member of the UW student body and hopefully will continue to be. Her father, Sam Awe, has a Ph.D. from UW, and he and his wife worked as special educators. Ms. Awe and her family are the type of immigrants who policy makers should want more of in the country, not less.

But for every Tope Awe, there are 100 immigrants who work as farm laborers, construction workers and maids who also work hard and play by the rules — just without a community of supporters like UW’s to speak up for them. They are often exploited by employers, they are paid less than minimum wage, and they face dangerous working conditions. If they are discovered by immigration enforcement authorities, they can’t just approach Sen. Herb Kohl to intervene on their behalf. They can’t afford to hire skilled immigration lawyers. The deck is stacked against them.

Now is the time where I’m supposed to point out that illegal immigrants did indeed break the law. We can’t just allow anyone who wants to immigrate into the country! What about the terrorists? Surely al-Qaida is working on a way to enter the United States through the Mexican border as we speak!

I don’t blame immigrants who face bleak futures for themselves and their children in their native countries for wanting to come to the land of opportunity. Leaving a gigantic border relatively unsecure next to a nearly 50 percent poverty rate and no real prospect for entering the country legally is like giving a college student a full liquor cabinet and telling him not to drink.

We don’t have a reliable database for keeping track of the visa violators, but that is the federal government’s responsibility. Until there is a comprehensive strategy to deal with immigration, local enforcement will inevitably be a piecemeal affair in which authorities arrest the most obvious, visible targets while the rest live in hiding and constant fear of being caught without papers. That’s why efforts by Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney to question arrested suspects on their immigration status are so futile, even if justifiable.

If the status quo continues, we’re likely to see more tragic occurrences like Ms. Awe’s situation. If only certain members of Congress would realize that demagoguery is no substitute for a sensible system that takes both our interests and the illegal immigrants’ unique circumstances into consideration. 

Ryan Greenfield ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science and economics.