If one of the darker chapters of contemporary American history is the ubiquity of government make-believe, perhaps the most insidious kind of make-believe is the persistent refusal to acknowledge that people are going to get abortions, engage in underage drinking, buy banned weapons, and cross the border even when it’s against the law. Occasionally the restraining power of the law takes precedence over whatever pleasure is achieved or pain avoided by violating it, but it’s not a good bet. Take the issue of illegal immigration: there is a much higher law than the law, and it’s called economics.

The average wage in the United States is over 500 percent of the average wage in Mexico. Some estimates suggest that as much as one-quarter of able-bodied Mexican men now live in the United States legally or illegally, and the money they send home to their families south of the border accounts for the largest source of GDP in Mexico after oil revenue. If the Mexican government itself does not recognize the unsustainability of this arrangement, we have little hope of convincing the immigrants themselves.

The Bush Administration’s new immigration policy has been a kind of painful revelation. In 1986 there was a partial amnesty of undocumented immigrants; since then the U.S. government has been playing a game of hide-and-go-seek with illegal immigrants, but without the seek. It is a policy based on denial. California, with somewhere between two and four million illegal immigrants, contains an entire shadow society about which the Census Bureau, John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge know nothing. Wouldn’t it be better if the Department of Homeland Security had a way of knowing who was in the homeland?

It’s actually a make-believe that’s bad for everybody: under current law, if I’m driving in California and an illegal immigrant smashes into my car, I’m stuck paying the bill.

Giving immigrants provisional legal status is not a permanent solution but at least it ends the make-believe. Up to now afraid to speak up when their employers abuse them, afraid to protest the kind of talk-or-be-deported blackmailing the Los Angeles Police Department “Ramparts” division regularly practiced on undocumented Central Americans (as reported extensively by the Los Angeles Times), afraid even to enroll in ESL classes for fear of being outed, undocumented workers will be encouraged not only to assimilate, but to participate in a system of protection for the rest of us: immigrants who have vehicle insurance, pay taxes, and can be located by law enforcement in drug or terrorism investigations because they might know something, are better than immigrants who fit none of those categories.

If that sounds reasonable, one has to wonder why former California Governor Gray Davis’ attempt to legalize just the driving status — not the legal status — of undocumented immigrants became a kind of political suicide. One of the few campaign pledges Arnold Schwarzenegger has successfully made good on is the rollback of the license law Davis signed on the eve of his recall. In California, where illegal immigration is a bit like NAFTA in Iowa, this was a no-brainer: how can illegal immigrants possibly be granted licenses? After all, they’re illegal! This is a country of laws!

Despite Schwarzenegger’s repeal, California has only seen the tip of the iceberg of this debate, which is a reflection of the larger debate over immigration reform. Do we recognize that there are people living in the shadows in this country, many of whom have been here for decades, have started families, whose children are citizens, and who watch Tom Brokaw, not Univision. Or do we go on pretending that Fortress America is impregnable, and that 10 million impregnators should be “punished” by a stern policy of government denial?

Currently, the number of undocumented workers living in California is larger than the entire population of the original thirteen colonies. The scale of the problem should encourage a pragmatic solution, not an ideological one. People who abhor the idea of an amnesty are quick to deny that they envision Tom Ridge driving 10 million undocumented immigrants across the border like a cowboy driving the longhorns across Texas. The “rational” argument for tighter borders and more Immigration and Naturalization Service (now under Ridge’s Homeland Department purview) raids on Los Angeles restaurant kitchens ignores that you’ll not only suffocate our ‘Wal-Martized’ economy with its low-skill jobs and even lower wages, but you’ll still have the problem of undocumented people with deep roots who simply aren’t going anywhere.

And there’s the inconvenient fact every time you tighten the border it makes immigrants here for temporary work less likely to return home, for fear of never being able to return.

Will President Bush’s carrot-and-stick amnesty plan — hold down a stable job for three years, get a U.S. passport — solve the problem of the 263 unsolved murders of young women in the lawless border town of Ciudad Juarez? Will it redress the failures of NAFTA — namely to define capital and goods as “free” and labor as something else? Will it give Hispanics, now the largest minority group in the United States, the boost they need to translate demographic strength into political strength? Will it make immigrants more likely to learn English? Maybe none of the above, but we shouldn’t let the great be the enemy of the good. The problem with the immigration reform has always been that the debate is conducted almost exclusively by zealots. President Bush has taken the first steps in shifting the “common sense” about immigration away from the zealots’ notion of realism as moral compromise. Immigration reform is a very long discussion — you’ve got to start somewhere by beginning to question what has always seemed obvious. Yes, they’re illegal, but they don’t have to be.