THE ancestors of Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, Michael Reagan and Patrick Kennedy, came to America around the time of the Famine at a time of rampant anti-Irish discrimination and would probably recognize the America of today.

Once again fear of alien foreigners again stalks the land, aided in large part by demonizing politicians and grandstanding journalists only too anxious to stir the melting pot.

The politicians are not the only ones culpable. Like Thomas Nast in Puck magazine who demonized the Irish as apes and monkeys, we have a cadre of cable media types, angry and rich white men of privilege who peddle soft racism against illegal immigrants.

The book contracts get fatter as a result and the ratings go higher. As WB Yeats wrote, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Then there's the mainstream media which demurs and flutters its eyes behind its fans like Geishas, but also like to play the "bash the immigrants" game.

CNN set up the recent Republican presidential debate so that the first segment could be a gladiatorial contest about who could beat up illegal immigrants the most. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani dutifully obliged. Mike Huckabee and John McCain did not, to their eternal credit.

I thought of Jose from Ecuador, an undocumented immigrant I met recently. He showed his daughter's picture. She's 12 and he hasn't seen her in 11 years. His Western Union money order helps her attend school and his family survive.

Michael Reagan and Patrick Kennedy would have approved of this good and decent family man. I suspect their famous offspring would have too.

At the NBC Democratic debate they played gotcha with the driver's license for illegals issue, catching Hillary Clinton in the headlights, much to their delight. In neither case did the journalists seek even a smidgeon of balance as to how the questions were asked or the answers challenged.

One would have thought the very idea came from the devil's playbook but for New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson explaining how well the driver's license for undocumented had worked in his state in terms of public safety and insuring drivers.

When New York Governor Eliot Spitzer tried to make the same point in New York it was drowned out under the harrumphing sound of the old white men on cable as they rushed to the ramparts, hotly pursued by much of the "respectable" press loving the sensationalism.

A recent opinion poll in Iowa showed that illegal immigration is the main issue among Republican respondents. Are they all dumb and dumber? Do they seriously believe that the issue of undocumented busboys, fruit pickers and nannies is more important in their lives than their health care, jobs or their family's future?

The answer is, alas, both timeless and simple. Great propagandists know that you merely need to dehumanize people to turn them into scapegoats and targets.

In today's media world ethnic targeting moves with the speed of light. Illegal immigration has become the "No Irish Need Apply" stigma of the new century.

In this election year the fevered debate is hardly likely to be quenched. The Republicans are sensing the power of it and hunting the glory.

Democrats are hopelessly split. They have forgotten the lessons of past candidates that when you stand for nothing, you fall for everything.

Perhaps Republican candidates, if they are truly serious about their rhetoric, could make the promise that they will never appear at a hotel or venue anywhere in America where an illegal immigrant works. I think we can look forward to a lot of outdoor venues. Perhaps the media could hold them to that promise.

Perhaps Democratic candidates could promise to debate this issue not with clichs and platitudes, but with real solutions and say what they will actually do to resolve it if they get elected.

America needs to secure its borders, no question. But it also needs to understand that catcalls and macho posturing are no substitute for real policy on immigration.

Surely our history tells us we have been here before, with dreadful results from the No Irish Need Apply signs to interning Japanese Americans, to the present day illegal alien bating.

Who do we have who can stand up, like Army lawyer Joseph Welch did to fellow Irish American, the commie seeker Senator Joe McCarthy, and ask him, "Have you no decency?"

The America I have come to know and love is full of decency. Alas what we are hearing at present are the calls of the clowns, aided and abetted from the peanut gallery, not responsible leaders in media or government. Shame on all of us for that.