Amnesty for undocumented (as we nowadays politely say) workers from Mexico? It’s just another trial balloon, and the nice thing about trial balloons is that you can shoot them down. Ready, aim, fire.

I do think this one, suitably ventilated, will flutter down to earth. I fancy the Bush administration, however kindly disposed toward Vicente Fox and the PAN, isn’t ready for another blind leap on immigration. The administration is indeed exploring the matter, at Fox’s request. I have the sense that this is just what you do for a friend like Fox: You listen attentively to his ideas without committing yourself to notions that simply aren’t workable. This one falls into that category. Likewise, George W. Bush is being advised (by such as the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot) that, if Republicans consider the growing Hispanic vote important, some massaging of Hispanic sensibilities makes sense.

Mexico—blessed, in Fox, with a decent leader, after years of corruption and political empire-building —needs our help and encouragement. But in offering that help, we need not leap into stygian darkness. We can do this thing in the dazzling light of day, as my senior U.S. senator, Phil Gramm (R-Texas), has proposed.

During Phil Gramm’s long political career, no one has ever called him a wimp on free enterprise. He loves the marketplace and its workings. To love the marketplace is to resist obstructions to those workings—but not always. In a fallen world, some obstructions, such as the legal requirements of citizenship, have their vital uses. The ultimate free enterprise state would be Hobbes’ state of nature.

Gramm hopes to regularize what already is going on without asking us to cave into lawlessness (viz., the cresting and crashing tides of Mexican and Central Americans entering the United States without a by-your-leave). “Our economy needs them,” he says, “but the system of illegal employment demeans them as human beings and makes a mockery of the rule of law.”

Accordingly, Gramm wants Congress to set up a guest-worker program, under which illegals would receive I.D. cards, a one-year work permit, and coverage under U.S. wage-and-hour laws, with 15.3 percent of their wages set aside for each worker in an interest-bearing account. Fox approves—a good start.

A program like this, assuming it worked as planned (always, in the political world, a problematical assumption), would bring order and regularity to a chaotic situation. It certainly makes more sense than a new amnesty, which would stimulate more illegal border crossings than ever, which would build pressure for another amnesty, which would . . .

Friends and defenders of the marketplace economy—I stand in their front rank, sleeves rolled up—are fond of noting how, in the real world, particular incentives call forth particular responses. The incentive of something (legal status) for next-to-nothing (identifying oneself) is the wrong kind of incentive.

Having said all this, I confess to uncertainty regarding just how well the Gramm plan, if adopted, would work. We seem to be at a great historical crossroads. Throughout the West, by reason of our prosperity and peace, more people want to come live among us than the Western nations have power to regulate—or even accommodate.

I read of economic and political “refugees” trying to force their way into the United Kingdom by any means available, including rubber rafts for crossing the Channel. Sixteen recently stowed away under a Eurostar train. “We want a better life,” said a frustrated Kurd protesting at a Calais detention center for illegals.

Senator Gramm nods in vigorous assent. “If I had two little children in Mexico,” he says, “and we lived in the conditions endured by many Mexican citizens, no power on earth could prevent me from crossing the Rio Grande for work.”

Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery. People come (invited or otherwise) because they see how well things are working here. This summer I spent time in Honduras on a parish adult mission trip. The wonder is why everyone in Honduras doesn’t come up here.

Of course, not everyone has the energy or ambition to try, which is obviously good. But many do want to improve their lot. The question isn’t—never has been—will we have immigration? The question is, can we control it?

Amnesty isn’t control; it’s unconditional surrender. Where do you stop? Nowhere, that’s where. Built into the Gramm plan are limits on the numbers of guest workers, in accordance with economic need. Would that do the job? It might well, but I doubt it, the border being so vast, so long, and so empty.

Dr. Johnson outlined the plain duty of those (like himself) keen to defend standards in the use of the English language: “We retard what we cannot repel. We palliate what we cannot cure.” That just may be where we are on immigration—the English-speaking peoples challenged, pulled in different directions, reaching for succor into still considerable reservoirs of courage and good sense.