THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Adrian Walker

When lunacy trumps policy

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / June 21, 2010

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Lorraine Henderson’s life was derailed because she encouraged her cleaning lady not to leave the country.

Eric Balderas landed in a holding cell for being unable to prove to airport authorities that he belonged in the United States.

What tie these stories together are our incredibly angry, confused contradictory attitudes about illegal immigration. We can’t even decide whom to blame, or how to punish them. We just know we’re mad as hell.

Henderson is an official of the Department of Homeland Security. She is accused of encouraging an illegal immigrant to stay in the country. Prosecutors have made a point of noting that her job is to keep the country safe from illegal immigration, not to encourage it.

Were it not for Henderson’s position, what she did would almost certainly not have resulted in federal prosecution. Federal prosecutors, in general, have more important things to do than to indict people for saying to the cleaning lady, “Hey, if you take this trip to Brazil, you might not ever get back into the country. You might want to rethink this.’’

US District Judge Douglas P. Woodlock ripped into the prosecutors from the bench on Friday. He seems to think the case was, at the very least, overcharged, and is considering a motion to toss out her guilty verdict altogether.

His pointed criticism apparently caught the government by surprise. I wasn’t there Friday, but I have often seen Judge Woodlock in action and I would describe him as passionate but measured. And Woodlock is not alone in thinking this wrong-headed prosecution was, and is, severely in need of a reality check.

Balderas’s case is even more disheartening. He is the Harvard student who moved with his family from Mexico to Texas when he was 4 years old, and has spent almost all his life in America. But because his parents were illegal immigrants, he, too, is here illegally. He was snagged recently while boarding a plane from San Antonio to Boston.

If he had been born after his mother decided to flee across the border into the United States, he would be a US citizen. But thanks to a decision he had no role in, he is a target. Even opponents of immigration concede that people who were brought to the country as children didn’t choose to break the law. The bid to deport Balderas was placed on hold Friday night after high-level intervention in Washington, though whether it will be revived at some point is anybody’s guess.

Balderas has instantly become a poster child for the DREAM Act, which would allow such immigrants to apply for permanent residency. But that legislation has been pending since 2001, and public intolerance of illegal immigration seems to be hardening, not softening.

What’s really nutty about our immigration controversy is that virtually everyone agrees that the system is a mess. Unfortunately, that’s where agreement ends. Even in supposedly liberal Massachusetts, the state Senate passed legislation a few weeks ago banning immigrants from receiving a host of services they are already barred from. Common sense, not to mention compassion, was an early casualty in this debate.

The country needs a robust, substantive debate about immigration, and I wish we were having it. But what we have instead are cases such as these, which are all about scoring points in the court of public opinion. Let’s go get that Homeland Security official who didn’t turn in her illegal cleaning lady. Let’s throw out that premed student whose mother carried him across the border when he was 4. This isn’t policy; it’s lunacy.

Unfortunately, people get caught in the crossfire. Henderson, the Globe reported, works in a pet store now, and I think it’s unlikely that anything Woodlock decides will salvage her career in government. Balderas told a reporter last week that he just wants to pursue a career in cancer research. That quiet life seems like a pipe dream for now.

Once, we thought immigrants like Balderas embodied the American dream. Now, this brilliant kid is a problem.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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