In the present debate over what to do with illegal immigrants and their children, there seem to be two main camps:
- Those who see innocent people in a desperate situation, who deserve to be treated with as much kindness and help as possible.
- Those who see law-breakers, albeit in a desperate situation, who must be dealt with firmly, no differently that native-born criminals must often face harsh consequences.
Call it: Why do you hate families? vs. Why do you hate law and order?
I’m going to argue that it is possible to take a “law and order” position that is both just and merciful — a position that upholds the law without becoming a slave to it.
What Kind of Lawbreakers are These?
Who is crossing the border illegally? Well, we know that a certain number of illegal immigrants are terrorists, drug dealers, or gangsters. (So are a certain number of legal immigrants, and quite a few locals as well.) No sane debate about immigration can doubt that such persons should be prosecuted as criminals.
In contrast, there is a much larger number of illegal immigrants who are not seeking admission into the country in order to commit any kind of crime. Given (or taking) the opportunity, they go on to hold down jobs, rent a home, put their children in school, pay taxes if possible, patronize local businesses, mow the lawn and paint the shutters. They do all the things that make up the life of a decent, peaceable citizen.
Because they cannot do these things legally, however, they are going about their ordinary, honest activities without regulatory approval.
When Teenagers Face the Law
A few months ago my teenage daughter called me in a panic. She’d gone into the city to run some errands, alone. She doesn’t ordinarily check in with me while she’s out for the day, except maybe to get permission to spend parent-money on something she really wants. Now this normally very calm and capable young woman was audibly distressed.
“I was going into Starbucks–” she told me. I visualized all the crimes that are committed in that particular neighborhood, and thought up a few worse ones. It might be broad daylight, but this is my little girl–“and I forgot to put money in the meter!”
She’d gotten a parking ticket. She feared that we’d be angry and that her driving record would be damaged.
Not to worry. You’ll be paying that ticket, and that will be that. Done.
In her teenaged mind, primed to worry about the grave consequences of the many risky activities that tempt kids her age, she had over-imagined the seriousness of her situation. Yes, she broke the law. Yes, she would have to rectify her situation, and it would cost her considerably more than if she’d fed the meter up front. But no, this isn’t a life-changing mistake and it shouldn’t be. After all, the activity itself — parking in a city-approved parking space — was not inherently criminal. She just failed to follow the rules about how to get permission to park there.
When Adults Don’t Pay the Meter
Most adults sooner or later find ourselves in my daughter’s position. We pay a bill late; we don’t realize we’re supposed to get a permit for some activity that didn’t require one in our previous community; we try to get our taxes filed but we use the wrong form . . . these things happen. We accept the consequences — a late fee, a small fine, a penalty on back taxes due. We are right to object to criminal penalties in such cases, unless there is incontrovertible evidence that the guilty party was genuinely committing a serious crime.
Is this illegal immigrant sneaking into the country in order to commit some kind of crime? Or is this person just seeking to earn a living and make a decent home, but has failed to file the correct paperwork?
No Parking at the Hospital
“Then come here the legal way!” is the objection that many have. Inasmuch as it is possible to do so, yes, we should enforce the proper procedures for an orderly entry into the country. Whether it’s because you can’t be bothered, or you were hoping to save a few dollars, or you just didn’t know, if you enter the country without your papers in order, then there ought to be consequences — consequences about like my daughter’s parking ticket, or like me going through my suitcase on entering the country at Dulles airport, making sure I didn’t have any illegal produce, because yes I’d checked the TSA prohibited items list thoroughly, but I’d completely forgotten about the US Department of Agriculture. There’s a delay, a little paperwork, but then you get your situation in order and continue with your journey.
The difficulty we have in the US, and other comparatively wealthy and peaceful countries, is that for many immigrants there is no legal way.
“Well don’t go to Starbucks if there is no parking!” might be one answer. The trouble is that while a privileged immigrant — able to get in fairly easily as a sponsored worker possessing specialized skills — might be indeed just “going to Starbucks” metaphorically by moving to a more prosperous nation, for many migrants, crossing the border isn’t about a quest for a little more comfort. For many migrants, crossing the border is the only hope for being able to make a living at all, however precarious.
It’s much less like getting a ticket for parking at Starbucks — more like getting a ticket for trying to get your dangerously ill child to the hospital.
Should there be a ticket? Sure, okay. But it shouldn’t be a crime.