Almost any discussion of how the United States treats uninvited visitors -- whether they be child refugees looking for shelter or adult immigrants looking for jobs -- will eventually get to the point where someone asks: "What about Mexico?"
This was the question put to me recently by Matt Patrick, a conservative radio host in Houston. Judging from the direction of the interview, the idea was to get me to admit that the undocumented are treated better in the United States than they are in Mexico -- or in most other countries.
As Patrick said: "The United States is the only country on the planet that I'm aware of that seems to allow people to cross its borders illegally, that allows them to stay, helps them out, doesn't throw them in jail, gives them a job, a house. Am I wrong? Are there are other countries that have the same policy?"
Yes and no, I responded. The larger narrative is that the United States is -- even with those who break the rules -- more humane and compassionate than are many other countries where, after all, people who steal from others might get their hands chopped off and adulterers are stoned to death. But the rest of the story, I said, is that, as I travel around the world and listen to journalists in other countries who also cover immigration, I see the same tension that Americans feel between trying to take a hard line against illegal immigration and yet being accustomed to relying on illegal immigrant labor.
"Let's just take Mexico, for instance," Patrick interjected. "They're pretty strict about their border in Mexico."
Here we go. It's a fair point. But it's also one that raises questions that don't lend themselves to easy answers.
Part of the problem is Mexico's disingenuousness regarding border security. From everything we know, Mexican officials have long been tough on illegal immigrants attempting to cross their southern border with Central America while simultaneously demanding that their American counterparts be lenient toward those trying to cross from Mexico into the United States.
Then there is the fact that Mexico isn't exactly known for its generosity or humanitarianism. As evidenced by consecutive waves of illegal immigrants migrating north over the last half-century, Mexico does a poor job of creating opportunities for its own people. So we can assume it doesn't do much for those who make it across the border unlawfully and wind up on Mexican soil.
Now that at least 57,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have crossed into the United States since October 2013, with more on the way, there's another concern that could be fueling this need to compare ourselves with other countries.
Some Americans are feeling uneasy, and maybe even a tad defensive, about the shoddy way that these kids are being treated by U.S. immigration officials -- not given adequate food, sanitation or prescribed medicines, crammed for weeks into holding rooms that are only designed to house inmates temporarily, denied beds, pillows and proper hygiene.
If these kids are really refugees, as the United Nations has designated them, they did nothing wrong. Asylum law says that upon crossing the border, they are not to evade authorities but to surrender and ask for help. They did that, by the book. And yet, their accommodations are so sparse as to seem punitive.
In fact, right-wing radio host Glenn Beck recently came across as a kinder and gentler alternative to the Obama administration by delivering $2 million worth of food, clothing, shoes, teddy bears and soccer balls to churches at ground zero -- Texas' Rio Grande Valley.
Now, let's go back to the radio interview and the question that drove it: What about Mexico?
Being a Mexican-American, as I formulated my response, the "American" half took over.
"Mexico has -- in part because of its resistance to immigration -- never been a model of economic prosperity and fairness," I said. "And, as a Mexican-American born in this country to parents who were born in this country, I've never, ever, aspired to be like Mexico."
Nor should any other American. We need to stop comparing ourselves to Mexico. What's the point? When dealing with immigrants and refugees, the United States is a much better country. We must realize that. Let's start acting like it.
Ruben Navarrette's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2014, The Washington Post Writers Group