In a national debate fixated on Mexicans sneaking across the border, there's been barely a peep about how arbitrary and political immigration...

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In a national debate fixated on Mexicans sneaking across the border, there’s been barely a peep about how arbitrary and political immigration law can be.

Congress, the White House and U.S. immigration agencies over the years have developed a complex patchwork system that favors some groups and nationalities over others.

Did you know:

• 220,000 Salvadorans, many of them illegal immigrants, have been afforded “temporary protected status” by the Bush administration for the past five years?

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• Irish-American lawmakers were able to set aside thousands of “green cards,” a path to eventual citizenship, for thousands of Irish immigrants?

• Cubans who make it to U.S. soil can stay legally and apply a year and a day later for permanent residency?

No such blanket welcome exists for those who would like to emigrate from other communist countries — China, North Korea, Vietnam. One reason: They don’t have exile communities with the political clout of Cuban Americans in Florida.

Ditto the Irish lobby.

In the late 1980s, Rep. Brian Donnelly, D-Mass., added amendments that enabled more than 10,000 illegal Irish immigrants to obtain legal status. In 1990, Rep. Brian Morrison, D-Conn, was able to set aside 40 percent of 40,000 “diversity visas” for Irish and Northern Irish natives.

One of Morrison’s allies: Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., whose office said his efforts were aimed at the unintended consequences of a 1965 law that made it harder for Irish to come because most no longer had immediate family here.

Lesson: It never hurts to have a senator on your side.

Or a U.S. president.

El Salvador became a “temporary protected status” (TPS) country in 2001, after two earthquakes killed 1,000 people and destroyed more than 200,000 homes. The TPS recently was extended for 12 months, meaning Salvadorans living in the U.S. in 2001 — many of them illegally — can stay and work for another year.

TPS is designed to aid countries reeling from a natural disaster, civil war or other destabilizing situation. But some nations that qualify have been denied.

An earthquake killed 80,000 people in Pakistan last year, but the country has no TPS. Colombia, plagued by guerilla conflict and narco-terrorists, also has no TPS.

And why has Haiti been denied TPS? Few countries have such poverty, violence and unstable governments.

Some experts see politics at work, saying President Bush is using TPS to boost the pro-U.S. government in El Salvador.

Being pro-American is no guarantee, however.

Poland, which ordered troops to Iraq, wants to be part of America’s “visa waiver” program, along with 27 other staunch U.S. allies. Citizens of those nations need only a passport to visit the United States.

The Senate this year added to its immigration bill an amendment that would exempt Poles from the visa requirement. But it’s not law yet, and there’s the pesky truth that many Poles who visit the United States don’t return home, becoming illegal immigrants.