Last weekend, I met the immigration issue face to face. I was in Los Angeles for my high school class reunion. Succumbing to nostalgia, I drove by my old San Fernando Valley neighborhood, by the schools I attended and the two homes where I lived. I was struck by the overwhelming Hispanic influence in the area. Signs at the schools were in Spanish and English. The two homes I lived in are now owned by Hispanic families.

When we moved to the valley in the late 1950s, it had a much more diverse makeup. There were large numbers of Hispanics but also substantial numbers of people of Asian, Jewish and European descent. Of course, then, we all thought of ourselves and others as Americans.

Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, the neighborhood, already lower middle class, started to deteriorate. The original population began to move north and farther east. Over the years the area became much shabbier and run down. Many of us mourned the loss of our neighborhood.

What a pleasant surprise to return this time and rediscover most of the homes were very nicely kept. Our two old houses looked better than they had when we lived in them. I spoke to a number of people, all in English. One of my classmates noticed the same pattern and commented that it might take a generation or two, but the natural inclination of people is to improve their circumstances. This is the American Dream.

I had another experience this weekend that helps illuminate the immigration issue. I attended a church service. It was conducted entirely in Spanish, and virtually everyone there was Hispanic. Happily, a headset with English translation was available for the handful of non-Spanish speakers. There was a wonderful feeling of unity in the service. All of the Hispanics could have been illegal; it made no difference to the feeling that pervaded the service. We were all brothers and sisters. It made me wonder if in all the bitterness and fear over immigration, many of us are subordinating our theology to our ideology.

I have listened to and read much of what the conservative anti-immigration folks have to say, and I am baffled at their hostility to the proposed Senate legislation. It seems to give them everything they want. Opponents of the bill want border security before dealing with the illegal immigrants themselves.

This is the keystone of the Senate bill. Of course, there is then the very complicated problem of what to do with the approximately 12 million illegal aliens who are already here (less than 5 percent of our population). It is simply not realistic, and would inflict enormous civil rights violations on millions of U.S. citizens, to arrest and deport any significant portion of those illegally in our country.

But, again, the Senate bill, however imperfectly, helps here, too. Without automatically being eligible for citizenship, illegals could qualify for legal status by learning English, paying a fine and not engaging in criminal conduct.

As Fred Barnes, the conservative executive editor of the Weekly Standard has said, "Conservatives are sometimes blind to what's in their own best interest. This is especially true on immigration, all the more so on the narrower matter of the bipartisan immigration reform bill now before the Senate. The bill gives conservatives a large chunk of what they've wanted for years, plus some things they don't want. The balance is heavily in their favor, though, and they're crazy to oppose this once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop illegal immigration and enact sensible policies for legal immigration."

It is sad that opponents of this reform paint it as either unbridled capitalism's need for cheap labor or as a liberal open-door policy intended to destroy American culture. It is neither. Opponents are angry at being characterized as xenophobic nativists yet, to quote Rush Limbaugh's brother David, all "(we) are fighting to preserve is a cultural commitment to the ... constitution ... and a societal consensus in the absolute moral values ... which are inspired by a belief in God. . ." There is nothing inconsistent with that sentiment and allowing large numbers of Hispanic immigrants into our country.

These same fears of cultural degradation and job losses accompanied the waves of Irish immigration beginning in the 1850s. "No Irish need apply" and the fear that the pope's Roman Catholic base would undermine America's political independence were rallying cries against Pat Buchanan's Irish ancestors. Race was also a factor then, and if you don't think it is today, ask yourself if we would be having this conversation if we were talking about 12 million illegal Norwegians. The Republic survived then and it will survive today.

Enacting the legislation now is the right thing at the right time. I especially urge Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett to vote for this bill and move our country out of the miasma of our current immigration policy.

Joseph A. Cannon is editor of the Deseret Morning News.