A few months ago, the Trump administration decided to engage in the kind of mustache-twirling villainy that would make Snidely Whiplash blush by announcing it would separate families at the border. The backlash was swift and overwhelming, with public opinion and the courts mobilizing to thwart the president.

It was heartening — in what can feel like our dystopian present — to see that taking children away from their parents and locking them up is still considered unacceptable by most Americans.

Most Americans, since according to polls, roughly 27 percent agreed this was a good idea. Judging from the letters to the editor at the Arizona Daily Star that defended the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, these people can be (mostly) split into two camps, which I like to call Camp Evil and Camp Evil Lite.

The first group makes the argument that ripping children from their parents as a punishment for crossing the border illegally is one hell of a deterrent, and an effective way to curb illegal crossers.

This position, taken by people inside the administration such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and adviser Stephen Miller, is monstrous. I shudder to think people like them help run our government (or walk our streets), but at least they’re problem solvers, right?

The second group doesn’t even get grudging respect. These people include Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen — who said separation wasn’t happening when it was, and even if it were, how dare you ask that question!? — and President Trump, who claimed they were just following the law and his hands were tied.

That tortured bit of logic, that once you order your attorney general to start prosecuting everyone who crosses the border illegally, well, then you simply have to take away their children, is disingenuous garbage.

There’s also a third, smaller group, and they may be the best chance to help support real bipartisan solutions, if and when Republican lawmakers ever slip from the thrall of Trump. This group differs with the administration’s tactics but still believes that something must be done about the problem of illegal immigration. And I agree.

To be clear, though, the “problem” of illegal immigration isn’t that we’re being inundated with brown people. It’s that we allow desperate people to take desperate measures — engaging with cartels, crossing endless desert — for a chance to pick our lettuce or slice up our cutlets. It’s that we allow profligate politicians to exploit the issue in their quest for power, more interested in posturing than in meaningful results.

It’s that the U.S. has a need for migrants willing to take on jobs that Americans are not willing to do, yet instead of facing reality and coming up with a viable guest-worker program, we are more than willing to turn a blind eye and let people live in the shadows, ripe for exploitation.

Anti-immigrant elements on the right would have you believe that anyone who is pro-immigration is secretly for open borders, but that’s a straw man argument meant to end discussion.

The U.S. has a right to control its borders and we need to know who is coming into the country and what their intentions are. That is undisputed.

If we start working from the point that border security is important and that we need a worker program that ebbs and flows according to demand (and guards against abuses by dishonest employers), we’re halfway to coming up with smart, comprehensive immigration reform. If we look at the 11 million people who are in the U.S. illegally and realize most of them positively contribute to this country, then a humane, pragmatic response would impose some sort of consequence, while allowing them to stay.

We can also acknowledge that it is our responsibility as a powerful nation to welcome asylum-seekers, but that we need to have the difficult conversation of who we take in, why and how many — but let this come from a principled foundation, not an impulsive policy driven by fear-mongering.

The president has said that immigration is a good issue for Republicans to run on, not because he wants to offer solutions, but because he can win votes by continuing to demonize migrants and promise cruel policies that demean our country in the guise of “get tough” measures.

That kind of cynicism can be overwhelming, but we must face it with optimism. After all, while it feels like we’re farther than ever from true immigration reform, at least we’ve seen that most of us aren’t for keeping children in cages. So, baby steps.

Luis F. Carrasco is an editorial writer at the Star. Email him at lcarrasco@tucson.com.