Americans want their immigration laws enforced, but they often also feel bad for illegal aliens who seem like decent people.

Is there a way to reconcile these conflicting emotions? The answer from supporters of "comprehensive immigration reform" is to offer amnesty to all the illegal aliens so there won't be anyone left to feel bad for. But their promises of enforcement in the future, to prevent another 11 million illegal aliens from showing up, are insincere. Some of the very same people made the very same promises as part of the 1986 amnesty. As the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

That's why "enforcement first" is the only plausible approach to immigration:

Put in place the mechanisms needed to truly enforce our borders, overcome the myriad court challenges from the opponents of immigration law, and reduce the size of the illegal population through attrition before starting a debate on amnesty.

Newt Gingrich's recent comments backing amnesty suggest, however, that there might be certain narrow groups of illegal aliens whose case is so compelling that some form of amnesty for them would actually strengthen the consensus for enforcement.

Gingrich's own proposal is comically half-baked and would legalize most of the illegal population while opening the door to unlimited future immigration. However, it's telling that in his comments he focused only on the two most sympathetic groups: adults brought here as very young children and those who came as adults but who have lived here for decades. As he described it, "You've been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you've been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church. . .."

It turns out that there are, indeed, ways for less frivolous politicians than Gingrich to appeal to both Americans' heads and their hearts on immigration - to back real, unapologetic enforcement but provide mechanisms for flexibility in the hardest cases of long-established illegal aliens.

One method already in use is called "cancellation of removal," which allows immigration judges to amnesty illegal immigrants whose deportation would result in "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" for a U.S. citizen spouse, child, or parent. These grants are subject to an annual cap, so one option might be to keep the tough standards but raise the cap so that as more illegal immigrants are arrested and processed for deportation, immigration judges will have more leeway in assessing, on a case-by-case basis, whether they warrant amnesty.

Another option already on the books is known as "registry," which amounts to a statute of limitations for being an illegal alien (assuming no criminal record and so on). The current cutoff date is 1972, meaning only those illegal aliens who have lived here continuously since then qualify. Obviously few people receive this form of amnesty - fewer than 200 last year. Moving the registry date up to 1986, but allowing it to be used only by illegal immigrants who are in the deportation process (rather than walking into the immigration office and applying for it), would provide another tool for dealing with the toughest cases.

A third tool would be new, as a way to address the problem of illegal immigrants brought here so young that they know no other country and speak no other language - Americans in all but paperwork, as one pro-amnesty group put it. Unfortunately, the proposed legislation along these lines, called the DREAM Act, is an expansive amnesty potentially applying to several million people. A slimmed-down version of this measure would apply only to those brought here before age 7 or 8 - the traditional age of reason. It would also have to prevent adult relatives from benefiting from their involvement in bringing the children here in the first place.

The point of such measures would not be to amnesty a large number of illegal aliens; rather, they would provide a way of addressing the hard cases that will inevitably arise from the across-the-board enforcement push that's needed to restore sovereign control over our borders. Such a push would include requiring all new hires to have their legal status checked electronically (the current system is voluntary); a coordinated effort by Social Security, the IRS, and state motor-vehicle registries against identity fraud; systematic partnership between local police and federal immigration authorities; and a fully implemented check-in/check-out system for foreign visitors (nearly half of the illegal population entered legally on temporary visas but didn't leave when they were supposed to).

The heart-tugging stories played up by the media are an inevitable result of letting unscrupulous employers and militant ethnic activists thwart enforcement of the immigration law for so long. The reality, though, is that most illegal aliens are going to have to leave if we are ever to have a credible immigration system. However, the means are available to address the truly hardest cases while still enforcing the law.

 Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. E-mail him at msk@cis.org.