H.R. 4437: Impossible but Ethical
As the Scoreboard observed earlier in “The Ethics of Illegal Immigration,” there are few national controversies where an ethical analysis leads so relentlessly to one conclusion. This has not stopped various commentators from using blatant rationalizations to reach other conclusions, but the following facts continue to present daunting obstacles to that exercise:
Ethical analysis is one thing, of course, and practicalities are another. It is simply not possible to deport all of the millions of illegal immigrants currently in this country. Many of them have children who were born here, making them American citizens. Torn between the unacceptable alternatives of making virtual orphans out of American children by deporting their parents and exiling native-born children along with their parents, the country must find some approach that will allow long-time illegals to stay here, though they do not deserve to. Similarly, it is not politically realistic to arouse the emotions and enmity of millions of American citizens who have emotional ties to illegal immigrants. But these factors only make strict enforcement of the immigration laws impossible. They don’t make enforcement wrong.
The House of Representatives has passed H.R. 4437, an unrealistically tough statute that includes amendments that require construction of a wall along the Mexico border and authorize state and local police to enforce the immigration laws, along with the statute’s other tough provisions, including increased penalties for illegal immigrants and those who hire and assist them. The proposed law is on the way to the Senate, and it has sparked huge demonstrations in California and elsewhere, with protesters claiming that the law embodies racism and the violation of basic human rights. The National Council of La Raza has its spokespersons out in force, arguing against the bill by claiming that it will “criminalize immigrants, deny due process rights, and harm U.S. businesses, communities, and families.”
Like all bills, H.R. 4437 ought to be debated on its fairness, effectiveness and practicality, and it fails on all three counts. But the protesters and illegal immigrant advocacy groups like La Raza are attacking the law by making the argument that immigration laws should not be enforced-— that it is wrong to enforce them. La Raza’s deceitful description of the bill quoted above is a good example. The bill will “criminalize immigrants” only in the sense that it will designate illegal immigrants as criminal; the statement is intentionally misleading. It will “harm U.S. businesses” that depend on illegal workers; it will harm “communities” that include illegal immigrants, and “families” that consist of, depend upon, or harbor illegal immigrants. Substitute the word “criminals” for “illegal immigrants” (for that is what they are) and the criticism is exposed as stating the obvious. All law enforcement involves collateral injury to those who depend upon or are connected to lawbreakers. Accepting La Raza’s arguments would mean abandoning most enforcement of any laws.
The more sweeping ethical arguments advanced in the mass demonstrations against illegal immigration enforcement were epitomized by the many impassioned demonstrators who put themselves in front of TV cameras to say that “people have a right to make a better life for themselves,” and similar sentiments.
No, people have a right to make a better life for themselves within the boundaries of the law. Thieves are usually trying to make better lives for themselves. So are kidnappers and drug-dealers, child-molesters, counterfeiters, extortionists, sex-slave traffickers, pirates and car-jackers. The Enron executives were trying to make better lives for themselves; so was convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. Many of these people are disadvantaged, poor, desperate and needy, just like illegal immigrants, but nobody is advocating that we ignore the laws they break because they were trying to “make a better life.”
The other prominent argument coming from the demonstrators was that strict enforcement of illegal immigration laws is “racist.” This is a classic employment of a logical fallacy, which most parents reading this article will recognize as closely akin to the charge of favoritism registered by the constantly misbehaving child. “You never punish her,” the mischievous son says, pointing to his obedient sister. “You always liked her best.” Just as his parents punish the misbehaving son more frequently because of his repeated offenses and not because he is less loved, so the fact that increased penalties against illegal immigrants will disproportionately affect those of Hispanic heritage does not indicate any governmental bias against them. The bias is against lawbreakers, and that is one bias American society needs to maintain.
Also without ethical merit are arguments against punishing those who provide food, shelter, water and other “humane” assistance to illegal immigrants while shielding them from authorities. The legal duty of citizens is to report lawbreakers; the ethical duty is to protect them from physical discomfort and harm if possible. The duties exist simultaneously, however, and performing one does not eliminate the other. Permitting humanitarian assistance to lawbreakers without requiring the humanitarians to reportthem to authorities simply creates a further incentive to break the law. Those who violate immigration laws do not deserve less compassionate treatment than other human beings, but they also do not deserve to escape the consequences of their illegal activities. Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned not for setting John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg while he was trying to escape after shooting Lincoln, but for harboring Booth and not reporting his location to the Federal troops. Compassion must co-exist with enforcement.
H.R. 4437 is almost certainly doomed to fail because it is unrealistic in its goals. Since it is not a good statute, does it really matter whether ethical arguments or pragmatic ones bring it down? Absolutely. The flawed ethical arguments being used to attack the law must not achieve legitimacy by being perceived as having any policy impact whatsoever. America must not adopt ethical norms that it is right for an individual to break laws “to make a better life,” or that it is wrong for a government to punish lawbreakers because their family members and communities will suffer as well. Long-standing illegals cannot be deported because of complicating factors stemming from their extended illegal conduct, but the nation must come to an ethical consensus that they deserve to be. The ethical lesson of this country’s illegal immigration fiasco is not that enforcing the immigration laws is wrong, but that when laws go unenforced for too long, it may become impossible to do right.