So immigration reform is stalled in Congress and pro-immigration demonstrators fill the streets again (this time wisely wielding American rather than Mexican flags). Everywhere you look, conservatives are decrying a lack of will to really do something about illegal immigration. Many are outraged over proposals to offer amnesty and legalization to illegal aliens who have lived in this country for some time, claiming that such a measure rewards people for breaking the law.
But most Americans, it seems, do not share that outrage and are deeply conflicted on the issue. The Washington Post reports:
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that three-quarters of Americans think the government is not doing enough to prevent illegal immigration. But three in five said they favor providing illegal immigrants who have lived here for years a way to gain legal status and eventual citizenship. The idea received majority support from Democrats, independents and Republicans. One in five Americans embraced the House bill, which includes no guest-worker program and would make felons out of those in this country illegally.
(See also this post by Nick Gillespie at Hit & Run.)
So what’s going on here? Why don’t more people nod in agreement when the Sean Hannitys and Bill O’Reillys sputter, “But they broke the law!”?
Maybe because they instinctively understand the peculiar nature of the law in this case.
The other day on the morning show Fox & Friends, one of the show’s regular guests, the DJ with the fittingly repulsive nickname “Mancow,” jeered at the rallies in support of illegal immigrants by announcing that he and some friends were organizingly a rally in support of “illegal murders.” Ha, ha. Actually, this dumb joke highlights something important. There is, of course, no such thing as legal murder. Murder is illegal by definition. Immigration is not. The same act — entering the United States — is legal for some people and illegal for others, sometimes depending on something as arbitrary as a lottery.
Let’s say that the government decided that we have too many lawyers and imposed a quota on how many law licenses can be issued each year. Let’s say there were thousands of people who had graduated from law school and passed the bar exam but had to wait for years to get a license to practice law because of the artificial quota (or had to enter a lottery for a license). Would the public be terribly upset if some of them practiced law illegally? Probably not.
Or, for a more realistic example: how many of the same conservatives who are enraged by the idea of amnesty for hardworking, decent, otherwise law-abiding aliens who came here illegally would be in favor of the government jailing — or even putting out of business — a woman who had run an unlicensed day care center out of her home, assuming that the children in her care were safe and well-tended?
How do we get around the fact that many illegal immigrants have made positive contributions to our society? (Check out, for instance, this account posted by Andrew Sullivan.)
Americans feel particularly conflicted on this issue because so many are descended from immigrants in a more or less recent past. Here, the Sean Hannitys will interject: “But they came to this country legally!” And here, I turn over the floor to John Tierney, trapped behind the Times Select wall:
Ángel Espinoza doesn’t understand why Republicans on Capitol Hill are determined to deport Mexicans like him. I don’t get it, either. He makes me think of my Irish grandfather.
They both left farms and went to the South Side of Chicago, arriving with relatively little education. My grandfather took a job in the stockyards and lived in an Irish boardinghouse nearby. Espinoza started as a dishwasher and lived with his brother in a Mexican neighborhood.
Like my grandfather, who became a streetcar motorman and then a police officer, Espinoza moved on to better-paying jobs and a better home of his own. Like my grandfather, Espinoza married an American-born descendant of immigrants from his native country.
But whereas my grandfather became a citizen, Espinoza couldn’t even become a legal resident. Once he married an American, he applied, but was rejected because he’d once been caught at the border and sent home with an order to stay out. Violating that order made him ineligible for a green card and eligible for deportation.
“I had to tell my 4-year-old daughter that one day I might not come home,” he said. “I work hard and pay taxes and don’t want any welfare. Why deport me?”
The official answer, of course, is that he violated the law. My grandfather didn’t. But my grandfather didn’t have to. There weren’t quotas on Europeans or most other immigrants in 1911, even though, relative to the population, there were more immigrants arriving and living here than there are today. If America could absorb my grandfather, why keep out Espinoza?
In my case, of course, I relate to the issue even more personally than John Tierney. I am a legal immigrant myself. As many of you know, I came here with my family in 1980 from the Soviet Union; at the time, we automatically received refugee status on the grounds that we feared persecution in our native country. (Which, actually, was not even technically accurate: the Soviet Jews coming here at the time had to fear persecution only if they wanted to openly practice Judaism — which, for my non-religious family, was not an issue — or if they were political dissidents.) And that is something I tremendously appreciate, but I am also aware of the fact that I got a special break due to Cold War politics, and that a lot of people around the world who had as good a claim to fleeing oppression or persecution did not get the same break. So my reaction is not “but I came here legally!” but more like, “There but for the grace of God…”
I understand that we need more effective border control, particularly in the age when terrorism is a real concern. I know there are other concerns about the economic and social impact of uncontrolled immigration (though I haven’t studied the issue enough to have a strong opinion on how justified those concern are). But I also know that anti-immigrant panic has been, again and agian, responsible for ungenerous and sometimes downright inhumane policies unworthy of America. Like when, after the “immigration reform” of 1996, people who were brought to this country as children and never went through the process of getting citizenship were suddenly subject to deportation to native countries they barely remembered because of a minor brush with the law that suddenly made them “deportable” (even though it wasn’t at the time of the misdemeanor). Or when people adjudged by immigration agents to be attempting to enter the country illegally, often because of a glitch in the paperwork, have been barred from reapplying to enter this country for the next five years — even if they were married to an American. Or when people suspected of minor and technical immigration violations have handcuffed for hours and sometimes kept from going to the bathroom.
Frankly, I find that far more outrageous, and far more damaging to America, than someone living here illegally and earning an honest living.