Like millions of others, he was going to overstay his visa and remain in the country illegally. Months earlier, my sister had returned to Arizona from her studies in Colombia with a boyfriend in tow. Though our parents were very conservative, she was their only daughter, and they agreed to sponsor his entry into the United States.

Joe (not his real name) was a genuinely nice guy, with a workable if heavily accented command of the English language. As the 19-year-old kid brother, I got along great with him. The same could not be said for my sister, and the two broke up after a couple of strained months. Such is romance.

When the split came, Joe found himself loose in the land of his dreams. He had once confided to me that he wanted to make enough money here to open a restaurant in Colombia, an admirable dream. To secure his visa, my folks had posted a $2,000 bond, which was a lot to them, to ensure that he left the country before his visa expired. Suddenly, no one in the family knew where he had gone.

That’s when I became a combination skip tracer and unauthorized immigration agent. I had met some of Joe’s new friends, most of them Spanish-speaking immigrants who peeked out from behind their curtains before answering the door. I visited a succession of apartment blocks and aging rental houses asking after him, and though treated with suspicion at first, made progress with a simple story: I owed him money and wanted to pay him back. In defiance of language barriers, money talks in every country and culture.

With time running out, I learned that he worked at a hospital in violation of his visa. I worked at another hospital across town, cleaning and hauling out trash from an industrial kitchen that grew to the size of a football field every time I rolled out a sloshing mop bucket topped with fresh soapy water. (Evidently my high school education had included no injunction against doing "a job that Americans won’t do.")

Putting on my work clothes, a set of baggy white pants and shirt sporting a plastic name tag, I posed as staff at Joe’s hospital to continue the pursuit. Though my cover was as thin as the shirt on my back, I quickly learned that Joe was a second-shift janitor.

As I closed in on my quarry, I realized that I had stupidly neglected to devise a method to get him out of the country. Calling in the authorities seemed a betrayal of a one-time friend and fellow minimum-wage slave. But I could spin a yarn. I greeted Joe like a long-lost brother, and before the surprise wore off, took him aside. In a conspiratorial whisper, I warned that immigration officers were hot on his trail. Embellishing further, I said he would never be allowed in the country legally if he was caught and thrown out. He whispered his thanks.

Just before the visa deadline, my folks got their money back; Joe had left the country. My story has many lessons, including the fact that teenagers can be good liars and $2,000 seems a fortune when you’re making minimum wage. Most of all, it says something about this latest debate over immigration law.

As an unabashed Democrat who was fired from the hospital for aiding a unionization drive, I should be reveling in the discomfort of those bloodless politicians who advocate making illegal immigration a felony. But it’s hard to find anything good about the current situation. Current immigration enforcement has become a cat-and-mouse game with a slap-on-the-wrist penalty. We know that many people who get nabbed and deported simply turn around and come back again. This turns immigration officers into fishermen with badges who catch and release the same border-crossers, time and time again.

I convinced Joe to leave the country by telling him that he risked forfeiting the privilege of ever re-entering legally. The House of Representatives is now saying the same thing.

We could try something more pragmatic: making it a misdemeanor with a loss of immigration priority for a first offense; felony treatment for repeat offenders. That way, the people caught and sent home have something meaningful to lose. Either way, only serious penalties will give meaning to our immigration laws.

Take it from a one-time, self-appointed immigration officer.

John Walker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a farmer and firefighter in Coaldale, Colorado.