By Cesar Millan
When I was 21, I entered the United States illegally. In doing so, I broke the law and disrespected the country I now call home.
But I don't regret coming to America. I've worked hard since then to make it a better place and share the values my parents instilled in me: honesty, integrity, and loyalty. And I've learned firsthand that sometimes it's necessary to break the rules to achieve the American dream.
Politicians tend to cast the debate over illegal immigration in black and white, with amnesty on one side and deportation and border fences on the other. But most Americans - and most immigrants - have more complicated feelings about the issue.
Our national conversation about immigration must keep that in mind. We must remember that illegal immigrants appreciate the opportunities America affords - perhaps even more than some natives do - and are eager to pay society back for the chance to improve their lives.
It's easy for politicians to deride illegal immigrants. They don't vote, and they're lawbreakers by definition.
But most immigrants who cross the border illegally do so because they have no other way to improve the lives of their families. They don't want to mooch off American society; they hope to contribute to it. And against all odds, they typically do.
To get here from Mexico, I had to make my way through a fence, walk down a freeway against traffic, and crawl through a muddy tunnel. And as an illegal immigrant with limited English skills, I faced many more challenges after I arrived.
I had decided that I wanted to come to America to be the best dog trainer in the world. After a few months here, I landed a job as a dog walker. From there, I used my skill with canines to climb the ladder of success. And only in America could a Mexican kid start with empty pockets and end up training dogs on an internationally syndicated television show, The Dog Whisperer.
Outside the limelight, countless more immigrants who entered the country illegally contribute vital services. Every year, they add billions to the economy and pay billions in Social Security taxes, even though they can't benefit from the program. Without their hard labor for low pay, crops wouldn't be harvested, homes wouldn't be built, and yards wouldn't be maintained. And Americans would face higher prices from the grocery store to the housing market.
Some claim that illegal immigrants take jobs from American citizens, but that's not typically the case. Illegal immigrants bridge the economic gaps - the spaces Americans have left vacant. The nation's economy would end up in shambles if they were all forced to leave.
When Alabama cracked down on illegal immigrants last year, the state's agriculture industry was nearly crippled. There weren't enough experienced workers to run the farms. Two years ago, the United Farm Workers of America invited unemployed Americans to take the jobs of undocumented immigrants working in the fields. Ten thousand signed up - and only 11 showed up.
For centuries, America has been a country built by immigrants in search of a better life and determined to work hard to achieve it. Many of today's illegal immigrants embody that spirit. Our leaders must remember that these hopeful, hardworking people are on the receiving end of their immigration policies.
America's immigration system must not only respect the rights of citizens, but also ensure that the country continues to be a place where a 21-year-old dog-lover from Culiacán, Mexico, can realize success beyond his wildest dreams.
Cesar Millan is the star of "The Dog Whisperer" on Nat Geo Wild and the subject of a biography scheduled to air on the channel Sunday, "Cesar Millan: The Real Story."