"My name is Blanca, and I am illegal."
That was how one member of the public introduced herself at a recent meeting of the Immigration Task Force in Madison. She was staring into the face of Dave Mahoney, the Dane County sheriff, as she spoke.
When I heard this woman make this admission, my jaw nearly hit the floor. I can hardly imagine the courage it must have required. Blanca went on to explain that she is a professional, someone who came to the United States to "better myself and my family." She works hard, pays taxes, does not expect handouts.
"The only fear that I have is for my children," Blanca said. "If this country at some moment decides to return me to my country, I would hate not being able to be with my children."
Blanca's story is really America's story. This is a nation built on people moving from other lands in search of fresh opportunity. It's an impulse that has served humankind well throughout history.
We are incredibly curious creatures, as well as highly territorial. And this combination of attributes has caused some of our greatest triumphs - and most monstrous lows.
The never-ending debate over immigration was brought back into sharp relief when Arizona passed one of the nation's most restrictive anti-immigrant laws - one that requires police to question anyone they suspect may be illegal. Now concerns about who has a right to be here are raging throughout the land, including in Dane County.
Last week's task force meeting concerned the sheriff's decision to more strictly enforce the reporting of undocumented people booked into Dane County jails to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
People here are now being reported based on a charge, no matter how minor, not on an actual sentence. The decision led to a significant spike in the number of holds placed by ICE on reported immigrants, holds that usually lead to deportation. The task force is hoping to recommend changes.
Mahoney did not speak at the meeting, but he did ask a few questions. Several speakers took him to task for his earlier quoted comment that he has not heard any "large outcry" over his immigration policy, only from "a small segment of the population." Jorge, an immigrant working in the community, echoed the feelings of many when he turned to the sheriff and asked, "Is this enough people tonight?"
I understand why Mahoney's policy might make sense to others. After all, being in the country without official permission is illegal, and the sheriff is part of law enforcement.
But after listening to the hours of public testimony, my opposition has been firmly cemented. One woman, who gave her name only as Mama Abuela, said she'd come to Wisconsin to "see if it was safe for my family" after living in Arizona, where her son, a married father of two, had recently been deported. She didn't want that to happen here.
Another immigrant, Claudia, told Mahoney that she and others "are afraid to speak in front of you. Please help us. We need to maintain ourselves. We need to protect our families."
As it now stands, entire communities are afraid to report even serious crimes to police for fear of getting themselves, a friend or a family member deported.
While the sheriff's policy does not extend to victims, witnesses and other family members, the fear it has created does. A handful of social services workers testified that the policy had made it harder to protect kids and battered spouses from families with questionable immigration status.
This is all, simply put, unacceptable.
Our nation's immigration system is a wreck. There aren't enough work visas, and the process of obtaining citizenship is a bureaucratic nightmare. Immigrants are demonized by some and taken advantage of by others. And when they end up in jail, they often don't understand the charges they face or the rights they have.
And yet, the immigrants keep coming and are an essential part of our country. Documented or not, they do everything from harvesting our food to building our homes to teaching our children.
Building fences and sowing mistrust won't solve the nation's immigration woes. It will take a shift in public perceptions, comprehensive policy reform and meaningful international cooperation.
Meantime, Madison can set a better example to counter the folly of what's happening elsewhere. As one speaker at the meeting put it, no one should be afraid to call 911 when they're truly in need.
Blanket amnesty or blanket harassment and deportation are not our only options. There is a middle way here, one that respects the dignity of all people, regardless of citizenship, while maintaining a modicum of safety and security. Sheriff Mahoney's current policy does not do that.
Emily Mills is a local writer and musician. She blogs at TheDailyPage.com.