Topic: Government & Politics

The Ethics of Illegal Immigration

There are certain issues that breed rationalizations, as citizens of good heart and sound mind nonetheless twist their ethical judgement into grotesque shapes to avoid confronting unpleasant certitudes of right and wrong. One of these is the matter of illegal immigration. The ethical verdict could not be more clear-cut or unambiguous. Illegal immigration is illegal. It is unfair. It is dangerous. It is bad social policy. It is, in short, wrong. And yet editorial pages and talking heads and interest group advocates will defend illegal immigration, or more accurately, argue against any meaningful measures to control it without appearing to notice that their arguments are ethically absurd.

Take the venerable Washington Post. In a recent editorial attacking local chapters of the Minutemen, the citizens group that has set out to patrol U.S. borders, the Post alleged that "undocumented workers" (a shamelessly misleading cover-word for "illegal immigrants," the term that focuses attention on the real issue rather than away from it) are necessary to do essential low-paying jobs that citizens in the Washington, D.C. area will not do. Though hardly original, a more intellectually dishonest argument would be difficult to imagine. If companies can't get citizens to do "essential" jobs at the wages they pay, then the solution is to pay enough so the jobs become attractive, not to exploit illegal immigrants to keep the costs artificially low. What a fine bargain the Post is endorsing: we let you break our laws, and you let us pay you at an unfair level that our own people won't tolerate. Ethical? Two wrongs may not make a right, but they sure can keep the economy humming, right guys?

Then there's this classic policy rationalization, which the Ethics Scoreboard hereupon dubs "The Policy Shrug": "If you can't stop something, you might as well decide that's it's right." From premarital sex, childbirth out of wedlock, recreational drugs, gambling, prostitution and abortion, to using foul language in public, driving ten miles an hour over the speed limit on the Interstate and dressing like a slob in the office, any arguably wrong or destructive or socially undesirable behavior that is difficult to control will generate defenders who argue that since it's going to happen anyway, we might as well give our ethical instincts a quick realignment and decide it's a good thing. Good comes from futility: what a concept! And what a crock. A culture cannot abandon its values to mob ethics, and the culture that does is on a fast track to oblivion.

The application of the "Policy Shrug" to illegal immigration was eloquently demonstrated in an op-ed piece by one of the nation's experts on immigration, Princeton sociology professor Douglas Massey. Massey chides the U.S. for beefing up its Border Patrol at the most popular and easiest points of entry for illegal immigrants, because it forced the flow of "migrants" (his word: heaven forbid that people who break U.S. laws should have a pejorative description attached to them) to more remote and dangerous areas, resulting in more deaths and more illegal immigration. Moreover, Massey says, where once many "seasonal workers" (translation: illegal immigrants ) would return to Mexico, now they tend to stay in the U.S. because repeat trips are too risky. Concludes Massey: "Instead of attempting to stop the cross border movement of workers through unilateral police actions, we should bring these flows of people above board, legalize them and manage them in ways that minimize the costs and maximize the benefits for all concerned." In other words, it's too difficult to stop the crime of entering our country illegally, so we should make it legal. The fact that a scholar like Massey can't do any better than this is telling. He actually argues that the U.S. is at fault for the deaths of illegal immigrants attempting risky entry because the Border Patrol has made it more difficult to break the law at safe, convenient illegal entry points! He absolves Mexico from all responsibility for the illegal acts of its citizens, much to the detriment of its northern ally, when in fact that government has encouraged outlaw migrants rather than address its own social and economic problems. And his policy "solution," essentially an open border between the U.S. and Mexico, is no solution at all.

The Ethics Scoreboard is not a policy website. It is not the Scoreboard's function to weigh in on immigration policy, except to say this: any policy must begin by being clear about right and wrong. The United States has a right and an obligation to control its borders and decide the conditions under which people entering the country can stay here. Those entering the country illegally are breaking the law. That is wrong. Such individuals, no matter how one rationalizes their motives or how much one sympathizes with their plight, are taking U.S. resources from its public, jumping in line in front of legal immigrants, artificially keeping U.S. wages low, and creating social problems. The U.S. should not be hesitant to enforce the laws of the land, mete out serious punishment, including imprisonment of its officers and employees, to businesses that hire illegals, insist on cooperation from Mexico, and change inconsistent policies that have the effect of rewarding law-breakers. These could include changing the law so that children born of parents here illegally are NOT automatically citizens; making illegal immigrants ineligible for citizenship; counting realistic estimates of illegal immigrants from a foreign country against its allotment of legal entrants; denying social welfare, school and other public services to illegal immigrants; and empowering local law enforcement to devise reasonable procedures for detecting and apprehending them. None of those measures would be wrong. What would be wrong is to do nothing about citizens of other countries who willfully break American laws, while punishing Americans who break laws that are far less vital to the nation's welfare.

Finally, a word about the last refuge of a failed advocate, the charge of racism. Incredibly, advocates for illegal immigrants continue to hurl the accusation of racism, based on the specious reasoning that because the vast majority of illegal immigrants are Hispanic, those who want to enforce the U.S. laws against their crime are prejudiced against "people of color," as if a similar flood of illegal Germans or Swedes would be welcomed with open arms. A related argument is much in vogue among some civil rights advocates, who purport to believe that imprisoning a disproportionate number of black males because a disproportionate number of crimes are committed by black males (this stat courtesy of Bill Bennett…just kidding!) is racist. Neither argument deserves the respect or publicity they have received.

Nobody should pretend that solving the illegal immigration problem will be easy or painless, which means that a solution will require a resource in short supply these days, political courage. But a wrong that is difficult to address does not become right. Illegal immigration is wrong. Stopping it cannot be; neither is calling it what it is.

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