“When did illegal aliens become ‘undocumented immigrants’?” a friend asked, tossing the latest issue of the RoundTable at me. “Your paper,” he taunted, seems to condone the phrase.”

I had read Joe Linstroth’s front-page story and was not surprised that Evanston was “doing its thing” by taking a community stand on a hot and complex issue, believing that national problems really begin to get solved on the local level. But my friend’s question got inside me and would not go away.

The term “undocumented immigrants” seems to be another example of political correctness. An illegal alien is someone to send the Feds after, someone “on the take” who slithers into the country, who is constantly looking over his or her shoulder to find a momentary feeling of being safe before disappearing into the shadows of anonymity. An undocumented immigrant is in fact an illegal alien, most often not fitting the above stereotype. And that is the problem.

Two days later a Chicago Tribune article about Evanston becoming a sanctuary city added to the dilemma my friend’s question created. But the more I thought about the two labels, the more I began to see the beginnings of an insight and an idea.

My mother and father were both at one time or other undocumented immigrants, I believe. Mom became a citizen after Pop died, and I am certain the judge never forgot her Irish brogue. My sister and three brothers all served in the U.S. Air Force, and I know of no two people more American than my parents. True, it was a different country back then, but the process of becoming a legal resident (which my father did) or a citizen remains basically the same – and needs to be honored.

Remembering my parents reminded me that, for all except Native Americans, ours is an immigrant nation. Emma Lazarus’ words at the base of the Statue of Liberty have made “immigrant” a positive label in our land, providing a dream to aliens of good will to become un-alienated in their new homeland.

Ours has been by tradition a nation of the open door, a history I am proud of and respect. But is it wrong to want to hear a knock and have the opportunity to ask, “Who’s there?” before saying, “C’mon in!” and “Welcome”? If citizenship in our land is so greatly desired, is it not worth working for as well as honoring the “rules of the house”?  Who would say, “That is too much to ask?”

The tougher question is how to take something as simple as that and make it practical.

Sanctuary cities across the country might be a way to begin – designated “Ellis Islands” where immigrants turn to get legalized. Secure our borders? Of course. But for those aliens already among us, why not a definite period of time to “get legal” in places designed to solve the problem? What better way to show good will on both sides? After the period of grace expires, the question of legality should become workably clear.

One strength of our nation is its diversity; another, its laws. Essential to both is the place of freedom offered to all. But freedom is not a gift, nor is it ever meant to be. Even when offered, it needs to be earned. Its price? Integrity, honesty and good will. Illegal aliens, undocumented immigrants: whatever the label, any person with those qualities should not think twice about knocking. Who among us would not say, “C’mon in?”