THIS IS NOT THE IDEAL WAY to start a column about illegal immigration, but …

I don’t get what the fuss is all about. My sense is that illegal aliens work hard, perform essential tasks, and benefit the economy. They are exploiting us, and we are exploiting them. Some of them, notably the recently executed Railroad Killer, are bad guys who commit crimes. So are some perfectly legal American citizens. On the whole, the country seemed to have made its peace with the problem back in 1986, when Ronald Reagan signed a bill providing amnesty for aliens who could prove that they had resided in America for at least five years. Or so I thought.

About a year ago, I received a call from a political polling organization. One of the questions was “Which of the following do you think is the most important issue facing Texas?” The usual suspects were on the list: education, taxes, crime, abortion, health care, the environment. So was illegal immigration. I remember being moderately surprised and paid it no further heed. (In case you’re wondering, education was my answer.) The next day I mentioned the call to a Republican consultant and rattled off a few of the issues that I recalled. “Was illegal immigration on the list?” he asked. I said it was. Then he told me that it was the number one issue among the state’s Republican primary voters.

How did this happen? Where did the issue come from? The answer is the grass roots. This might seem to be commonplace in politics, but in fact it is rare. The usual ways that issues get on the national agenda are through changes in indicators—that is, statistics that are constantly being tracked by experts (for example, global warming); through triggering events (for example, the collapse of Enron, which led to reforms of corporate management); and through the political process, when they find a champion (for example, Harris Wofford’s upset victory in a 1991 special election for a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, which propelled health care into the forefront of the national debate). Although exceptions do come to mind, the vast majority of issues tend to percolate down, not up.

But the impulse for cracking down on illegal immigration is so strong among rank-and-file Republican voters that Republican politicians have no choice but to get out in front of the stampede, even though the issue could do major long-term damage to their hopes of attracting Latino votes. In June, Rick Perry, whose political instincts are unerring, announced plans to send National Guard and Texas Air Guard troops to the border and, with landowners’ permission, to install cameras on known cross-country routes. It was as if the number and type of illegal aliens had reached some invisible tipping point in the public’s mind, so that Texans in the cities and suburbs started to notice the presence not just of more Mexicans but also of OTMs—“other than Mexicans”—in visits to their children’s school or  the emergency room. Perhaps word just spread from the rural borderlands, where ranchers say that many of the people crossing their land these days are “tatted up,” or covered with the sorts of tattoos you might see on drug smugglers. It doesn’t take long to make the connection between illegal immigration and other issues: crime, national security, education, the economy, and welfare spending. Dallas County’s majority-Republican commissioners’ court recently announced that Parkland Memorial Hospital plans to bill Mexico (as well as Dallas’s neighboring counties) for the $76 million it spent last year treating indigents who were not residents of the county, more out of frustration than anything else.

All of this made me curious enough to drive down to Laredo on the first Friday in July for a congressional hearing on immigration and national security. I didn’t expect much from the hearing itself. The House Republican majority had passed its immigration bill months ago; the session was a dog and pony show designed to embarrass the Senate, which had taken a more lenient approach to reform. The House hoped to demonstrate that immigration is a national security issue, thus justifying its proposals to build seven hundred miles of fences along the border, enforce laws against employers who hire illegal aliens, and make it a felony to be in the country illegally. One witness testified that Iraqi dinars had been found on a ranch near the border. Another spoke of finding Sudanese currency. The Border Patrol wanted more technology. Henry Bonilla, the GOP congressman who represents half of Laredo, said, “Hundreds of illegal aliens invade our border communities each day.” The chairman of the panel, a California Republican, said, “Some areas can accurately be described as a war zone.” An Iowa Republican said, “No Democrat has ever offered a bill to have more Border Patrol agents.” Democrats insisted he was wrong. It was all politics, no substance— entirely predictable stuff that didn’t advance the ball an inch but gave activists on both sides a chance to cheer and jeer. A better strategy to demonstrate the intellectual bankruptcy of Congress could scarcely be invented.

With one exception. The main reason I went to Laredo was to talk to Representative Silvestre Reyes, of El Paso, one of several Democrats from Texas who had been invited to join the panel. Reyes knows more about illegal immigration than anyone in Congress. For more than a quarter of a century, he was a Border Patrol agent. The grandson of an immigrant from Chihuahua, he rose through the ranks to be the first Latino sector chief, first in McAllen, then, in 1993, El Paso. In the latter city, he reduced the number of apprehensions per day from 1,000 to 150.

This may sound like a bad performance; in fact, it was a great performance. The policy of the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the time was to hunt for illegals after they had successfully made their way into this country. An average of 10,000 illegals were crossing every day, many on impromptu ferries. Upon his arrival in 1993, Reyes instituted Operation Blockade, which utilized a helicopter and four hundred agents stationed for twenty miles along the border to discourage would-be immigrants from crossing the river. The Mexican government protested, and demonstrators took control of two of the four connecting international bridges, burning an American flag and an effigy of Uncle Sam. This magazine did a story on Operation Hold the Line (State Wide Reporter: “El Patriot,” February 1994), as it came to be known officially, and Reyes took the author through the Mexican shopping area near the river, thronged with customers. “When I arrived in El Paso, it was nothing like this,” he said. “There were gangs on every corner and glue sniffers, pickpockets, prostitutes, and shoplifters.” Some Latinos in El Paso, including the bishop, felt Reyes’s loyalty should have been to people of  Hispanic heritage, not to the immigration laws. “Are we supposed to be less American just because we’re Hispanic?” Reyes asked the author. “I don’t think so. I’ve fought for this country. I’ve committed my career to controlling its borders.”

In December 1995 Reyes, with his name identification at 65 percent, resigned to run for Congress. The following spring he defeated a staffer for the retiring incumbent in a Democratic primary runoff. But it was his misfortune to arrive in Congress just after the Democrats had lost their majority status, which they have yet to regain. As a result, his expertise has been wasted.

“I was naive,” Reyes told me, as he directed me to sit on his left. (He is deaf in his right ear, the result of an attack on his bunker in Vietnam.) I noted that the author’s description of him from the 1994 article—“a round face and sad brown eyes”—still held true. We were sitting in the cafe of La Posada, the hotel that was hosting the hearing, and the kind of glad-handing that guys do, especially guys in politics, was going on all around us. Reyes ignored it. “I figured that I’d be able to get something done on immigration because of my experience and because the border is in the backyard of my district,” he said. “I haven’t been able to do anything.”

The reason, he says, is that the Republicans in the House treat immigration as a national security issue. “They are two different issues,” he said. “‘Security’ is used by colleagues with agendas. There’s an undercurrent of racism in this issue. I don’t make that observation casually. Racism is deliberately fueled to demonize Mexico and the Mexican people. You’d think that all the 9/11 terrorists came from Mexico. There’s no reasoning with people who are intent on making it into a 9/11 issue.”

I asked Reyes what our immigration policy would look like if he had his way.

“Start with more manpower,” he said. “That was the post-operation report on Operation Hold the Line. But you can’t hire ten thousand Border Patrol agents overnight. It’s a stretch to hire two thousand a year. You have to have the right ratio of inexperienced to experienced agents.

“Second, you have to understand why people come here—to get a job. That means enforcing employer sanctions [for violating the law by hiring illegal aliens]. Only three cases were prosecuted in 2004, down from one hundred twenty-four the year before.

“Third, more technology. Cameras are good for officer safety. In some places, you can spend money better on sensors and radios. Let the sector chiefs decide. Figure out where you want to be in 2012 and implement that plan.” (I asked Reyes about building a wall. “Fencing is essential in El Paso,” he said. “We share a boundary with a city of almost two million people. You’ll need fencing in Nogales and San Diego. But not a two-thousand-mile fence.”)

“Fourth, a guest-workers program. Otherwise you run the risk of ruining the economy. “Fifth, a legalization program for people with clean records. Reading and writing English should be a condition of citizenship.”

All this sounds pretty good to me. The Border Patrol needs more agents and more technology to make our borders secure. Our economy has to have workers. Immigrants have to learn English if they are going to be successful here. Fences are essential to prevent infiltration in areas of large population concentrations. Most industrial countries in the world need foreign workers to make their economies work, and as the population ages, America’s needs will increase.

It was time to go upstairs for the dog and pony show. “What am I going to hear today?” I asked Reyes. “A lot of BS,” he said. He was right.