Inescapable Logic on Immigration

There is no greater sign of what a good and generous people Americans are than our troubles over immigration.

Were Americans a downright mean people, we would have no compunction about shipping illegal immigrants back to their countries of origin en masse. Yet that is politically unacceptable. Why? Because most of us would find it morally unacceptable, particularly for people who have been here for long time and have begun to put down roots.

Kicking out someone who has just crossed the border without our permission is another matter altogether. But plenty of Americans object even to that. If these are poor people, arriving in our prosperous country to improve their lot in life, as most of our ancestors did, who are we to object?

Of course, the hundreds of thousands of slaves brought involuntarily from Africa are the great exception to the pattern of voluntary immigration. As most of the Founders recognized, the existence of slavery was a moral stain on the Republic. In time, it was expunged, thanks in part to the efforts of countless white evangelical Christian soldiers marching into battle singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

But our nation’s laws concerning immigration are generous by international standards. Consider those of Mexico, as reported by the Washington Times:

Under the Mexican law, illegal immigration is a felony, punishable by up to two years in prison. Immigrants who are deported and attempt to re-enter can be imprisoned for 10 years. Visa violators can be sentenced to six-year terms. Mexicans who help illegal immigrants are considered criminals.

The law also says Mexico can deport foreigners who are deemed detrimental to “economic or national interests,” violate Mexican law, are not “physically or mentally healthy” or lack the “necessary funds for their sustenance” and for their dependents.

American law is less severe: “maximum prison sentence for an individual caught in the act of violating immigration policy is 6 months for the first offense and additional 2 years for any subsequent offense.” Bill O’Reilly has made a splash calling for “Kate’s Law,” which would require five years in federal prison for “any aggravated felon who defies deportation.” As it is, the government of the United States does not ignore its immigration laws outright but it has not, as a rule, been enforcing them rigorously. Also these laws include generous provisions allowing for immigrants to become citizens, and for allowing them to bring their families here. Then there are the much-discussed jurisdictions around the country that have declared themselves to be “sanctuary cities,” in which immigration laws are purposely not enforced. And none of this takes into account our annual expenditure of billions of dollars to provide food, shelter, housing, education, and healthcare to immigrants and their families, whether here legally or not. In sum, we have, by some measures, the world’s most generous immigration policy.

The compassion of Americans is rooted in Biblical injunctions to look out for the stranger, the poor, the widow, and the orphan in our midst. In the Old Testament, recall that the relevant passage also points to the rule of law: “The Lord . . . does not show partiality nor take a bribe.” Elsewhere, the Bible notes that justice is to be blind: “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.” The idea of equality before the law is inseparable from this country’s being such a good place to migrate to.

Unless we can create a world without borders—a fantasy absent fundamental changes in human nature (the old misanthropic dream)—it is reasonable to have a world of nations. That being the case, it is and will remain reasonable for nations to decide who may join them inside their borders as fellow citizens. Therefore it must not be unjust to enforce immigration laws.

But justice entails having the punishment fit the crime. And that leads us to a very complicated discussion.

Ignorance of the law is no excuse, as the old saying goes. Clearly we have a legal right to deport every single person who is here in violation of our laws. But what if they are here illegally but their children or other close relatives are here legally? (Whether the children of people here illegally are citizens is an interesting question. The Supreme Court has only ruled on the status of the children of permanent legal residents. But there is dicta suggesting that the Court would also declare to be citizens the children of people here legally but temporarily, and of people here illegally. On the other hand, the Constitution liveth.) One answer is that that is not our fault. As they have no right to be here, they have to choose between breaking up their family for the economic or other benefits of allowing some to stay in the United States, or having the family together.

How compassionate should the American people be? As compassionate as justice demands, is the obvious answer. But how compassionate is that? Clearly, as even a Socialist like Bernie Sanders notes, high immigration is bad for America’s poor. High immigration keeps wages down. Justice to America’s poor, therefore, demands that we enforce our laws more rigorously than we currently do. If we were to begin enforcing the law with more rigor, justice to newly arrived illegal immigrants would be a different matter from the question of what we owe to those already here.

What about illegal immigrants who are already here?

Of those who are already here, we can say that they know that American law does not allow people to migrate to the United States without the consent of we the people, communicated through the instruments of our government. That said, many immigrants, conveniently, think that the country has no right to enforce its laws even so.

And truly I wonder to what degree that attitude on their part is our own fault. As I said, the laws have not been strictly enforced for quite some time. And of late many of our elected officials seem to think they are allowed to ignore laws they do not like. It is, in other words, one thing for people to violate a law knowingly, and another to violate it with the complicity of our governing class. If illegal immigrants think they are merely “undocumented workers” who deserve to have legal documents, their attitude is, in part, the result of an excessive generosity and of the legal and moral ideas they have learned from many of our elites.

And that brings us to one little-discussed aspect of the debate. It may very well be that justice demands that we Americans make a settlement with all immigrants who have been living here peacefully, albeit without our consent, perhaps involving a reasonable fine. If we do so, and if we forgive much of the cost of whatever services we have provided, we do have a moral right to expect gratitude on the part of the recipients of that charity. There ought not be any sense of entitlement. It is certainly true that charity should be given for its own sake, and not in search of reward or gratitude. On the other hand, those who receive gifts should be grateful—even if the giver does not demand any sign of gratitude. The attitude in which the gift is accepted matters a great deal.

The rise of the entitlement mentality cannot be reconciled with a republic of free and responsible individuals. The best form of charity, after all, is to “teach a man to fish.” Such charity, however, begins with a realization that the goal is to create free and independent men and women who can pay for their own food, shelter, healthcare, education and the like. Moreover, it means welcoming new citizens into a government of laws, not of men, in which the men and women who staff our government believe it is their job to enforce the laws we have hired them to enforce.

The comment of Governor Jindal (R-LA) that “immigration without assimilation is invasion” is harsh but, when applied to mass immigration, it is logically and morally correct. If we Americans wish to remain a free and generous people, we need to ensure that our new citizens assimilate to our way of life, and learn to love the American flag as the emblem of a great nation that welcomes so many millions from other lands who seek nothing more than a chance to live among free and equal citizens. That can only be done when we are willing to defend the moral character of the American nation and defend the rule of law.

The alternative is to fundamentally transform America into a land in which we are divided into groups and the law means different things to each group. It means, in other word, a return to the world so many of our ancestors thought they had escaped when they migrated to America, as John Quincy Adams noted long ago.