In the fall of 2012, I was in San Diego for business. One afternoon, I had some time off and decided to check out Tijuana, Mexico. I took the red trolley down to San Ysidro and walked across the border.

The path to Mexico is a poured concrete sidewalk, lined by fence on both sides. It meanders behind some buildings and up a gradual slope to a set of metal, one-way turnstiles that mark the border. I was one of a handful of people heading south.

You can’t see where you’re going before you cross. I confirmed with a border patrol officer at the gate that I would be able to get back with my driver’s license. Past the turnstiles, I walked through a room occupied by some Mexican border guards who did not seem very interested in me.

Once I got to the other side, my heart sank as I saw the line to get back into the States. It seemed to go on forever. Even so, I decided to explore the city. I walked around for a couple of hours, eyeing a lot of terra cotta pottery, textiles and tequila bottles.

Then I decided that I had better find the end of that line. It was the longest I have ever seen. It wound on for blocks and blocks and blocks. After those blocks, the line entered a sort of tunnel that went on for more blocks before finally leading to the immigration lanes and a customs officer.

Our 2,000-mile, southwest border with Mexico is a hot topic these days. Californians and New Yorkers have been protesting an influx of illegals. Texas Gov.r Rick Perry called out his National Guard to control the border in his state. Maine Gov. Paul LePage was surprised to learn that eight unaccompanied children stopped at the border had been placed in Maine.

Apprehensions of illegal aliens at the southwest border peaked at about 1.6 million in 2000. Since then, the number has fluctuated. It declined to less than 357,000 in 2012 before increasing to more than 414,000 in 2013.

In 2008, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. It provided children who were victims of severe exploitation with legal counsel, an independent advocate, interim assistance, special relief from removal, and eligibility for asylum. Apprehensions of unaccompanied minors at the border were about 8,000 in 2008, nearly 20,000 in 2009, almost 19,000 in 2010 and about 16,000 in 2011.

After Congress failed to pass the Dream Act in 2010, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano issued a memorandum in June 2012. It required prosecutorial discretion to avoid removing young, illegal aliens. Apprehensions of unaccompanied minors at the southwest border through June of each year were nearly 28,000 in 2013 and more than 57,000 in 2014.

People want to immigrate to the United States because life is better here. It is safer. There is greater freedom and opportunity.

Central and South America are plagued by drug violence, poverty and dysfunctional government. Eastern Europe is still struggling to throw off the chains of communism. The Subcontinent and Middle East are perennial hotbeds of ethnic and religious violence. Southeast Asia is still recovering from the war between democracy and socialism. China chafes under central control. Many countries in Africa are corrupt and violent.

As fortunate as we are, we cannot accommodate everyone who would like to live here. While some immigration is good, too much is bad. It’s hard to identify where the tipping point is. We need to be selective. It is not enough that someone wants to live here or shows up at the border. We have to have a system.

Moreover, taking in all the struggling masses yearning to breathe free won’t solve the problems motivating their flight. It won’t improve conditions in their home countries. Our immigration policy must be integrated with a foreign policy that promotes what we have and what other people want, one that opposes tyranny and oppression, and promotes democracy and free enterprise abroad.

Our immigration system is not fundamentally flawed. It permits immigration on the basis of family, employment and humanitarian reasons. Those humanitarian reasons are a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, national origin, political opinion or social group; not fear of common crime.

While we may need to adjust the balance between those categories, the big challenge is to operate the system faithfully. That means securing the border and applying the rules. At the margin, in individual cases, that may seem unfair. But it’s the only way. Otherwise, we will just repeat the cycle of ignoring the problem until it becomes a crisis.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.