When the talk turns to immigration, my mind drifts to the days before the First World War, to my ancestors making the long journey by ship from Europe.

These were my great grandparents, immigrants who came from Russia and Poland through Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century.

 What few afternoons I shared with them as a boy have long been lost to time. It’s unfortunate, because I have so many questions.

Like: What drew them across the Atlantic Ocean? What about this America sparked a dream in them? What were they fleeing? What did they hope to find?

Such questions feel vital to me today, because a dozen decades later the news teems with tales of immigrants risking everything to come to this nation – only to be met with vitriol and handcuffs, a confused asylum process that is no process at all and who knows how many months separated from their children.

To talk about immigration circa 2018 is to hear some of your neighbors burn with hatred for “these people,” immigrants they believe threaten not only law and order, but the American way of life.

Here’s a question, one I ask without a clear answer and with no agenda beyond curiosity: What does America owe to those who come to this country in search of a better life?

I mean every immigrant, with papers and without, those who come to populate our medical schools and research facilities and those who trudge across the desert to join construction crews and clean houses.

It’s a basic question. And one we seem unable to answer in this age of no agreement.

My own answer traces back to that ship at sea. My forebears made their voyage at a time when European immigration was a free-for-all, when the American border was open to anyone who could afford transatlantic passage. So, yes, they came legally. And, yes, they assimilated.

But here’s the thing: Their arrival was afforded the basic human dignity clearly lacking in today’s immigration shouting match.

They were not viewed as animals. They were not treated as enemies of the state.

If it sounds like I am arguing for completely porous borders, let me say that is not the case. Today’s America faces a different set of threats than we did 120 years ago. We also face different cultural and economic challenges. In a nation of nearly 350 million people, unfettered immigration may not be possible or desirable – and it is certainly not politically achievable.

Regardless, must we treat people like animals for the simple crime of acting on their dreams?

To say that America is a beacon of freedom for all the world does not, to me, require this nation to admit every single soul who desires to call the United States home. We should not do that. We cannot do that. But for those we cannot admit, we must find a way to make their lives better – and we especially must not continue to make their lives worse.

The answer, it would seem, lies in finding the right balance between immigration without limit and our president’s hulking, penal wall and increasingly ugly verbiage. There should be room in a nation our size for more dreamers like the dreamers who started this country 400 years ago. The question is how many more? And who?

Whatever our answers, our treatment of immigrants should be accompanied by the grace so much of today’s caging and screeching lacks.

Just because some of our immigrant ancestors got here first – and legally – should not excuse subsequent generations’ willingness to treat human beings like so much human trash.

 David Leibowitz has called the Valley home since 1995. Contact