Topic: Professions & Institutions

Advocate Deceit and Illegal Immigration

Law schools train their students to phrase issues in such a way that the answer they want is implicit. For example, one should not ask, “Was the police search of the defendant’s car legal under the Fourth Amendment?,” but rather “Was the police search of the defendant’s car illegal when the defendant was stopped pursuant to prohibited racial profiling policies?” This is basic advocacy technique, and it is both legitimate and ethical. Some lawyers, as well as many non-lawyer advocates ,stretch the technique to its breaking point when they distort issues and mislead the public by using carefully crafted descriptions designed to persuade by hiding the truth. When lawyers do this, it is a violation of the profession’s ethics rules forbidding an attorney from engaging in “misrepresentation, dishonesty, fraud or deceit.” When non-lawyers do it, it’s just plain wrong. And no issue has spawned more rhetorical dishonesty from both lawyers and non-lawyers than the illegal immigration controversy.

A recent Washington Post Op-Ed by Virginia lawyers and illegal immigrant advocates Nancy Lyall (this is the kind of name the Marx Brothers used to give lawyers in their comedy routines, by the way) and Theresita Jacinto provided a veritable primer on this unethical tactic. Deceit is the practice of using carefully worded statements that are literally true in order to confuse and deceive a reader or listener. It is the unofficial language of Washington, D.C., of course, but that doesn’t make it any less dishonest, especially when used as blatantly as in the Lyall and Jacinto article.

Their piece is entitled, “In Virginia, the Harm of an Anti-Immigration Bill,” getting things off to a dishonest head start. The bill in question, Virginia House Bill 2937, is not “anti-immigration,” but anti-criminal. This is what illegal immigrants are; in the English language, people who intentionally break laws are called “criminals.” The highly reasonable bill, passed by the state’s House of Delegates and awaiting a vote from the Virginia Senate, decrees that no organization receiving state funds “shall use those funds to provide benefits for ineligible persons such as undocumented immigrants.”

Lyall and Jacinto begin by describing illegals as “new immigrants who may lack official residency paperwork.” This tortured and thoroughly misleading description makes it sound as if some law-abiding immigrants woke up one morning to find that their official papers had blown out the window. Lyall and Jacinto’s clients assist people who “lack official paperwork” because they unlawfully avoided the U.S. immigration procedures. Using the authors’ method of description, label cruise ship stowaways would be called “tourist passengers who may lack cruise line paperwork.” Cute. And thoroughly dishonest.

The article goes on to describe the reason for the rise in the tide of what the authors call “new immigrants” to Virginia. It has “risen significantly in the past five years in response to the need for construction labor.” This frames the problem as simple cause and effect: jobs need filling, and Poof! “How the heck did I end up in Virginia? Why, those jobs just puuullled me hereĀ…not a thing I could do about it!”

But it’s not just those pesky construction jobs that force people to cross the boarder illegally. Lyall and Jacinto point out that our government is also at fault: “Current federal immigration policy provides no legal avenue for their presence, so many immigrant workers cross the border without authorization.” True enough. And state laws similarly don’t provide a “legal avenue” for people to just walk into a bank and get the money they want, so some people break into the vault. “Current federal policy provides no legal avenue for” is a deceitful way of saying “it’s against the law” in a way that suggests that making conduct illegal is just a form of rudeness, laziness, and gratuitous meanness.

The op-ed goes on to describe the proposed rude, lazy, mean Virginia bill this way: “Most of these people are hardworking and focused on supporting their families. But if this bill becomes law, not only will immigrants suffer but the organizations that try to help them also will be compromised.” The first sentence is an irrelevancy carefully placed in the argument to confuse the issue. Most income tax evaders are hard-working, and the Corleones were focused on supporting their families. One doesn’t get the right to break the law by being admirable in other respects, and lawyers know this to their core. For Lyall and Jacinto to suggest otherwise by their word games is to intentionally mislead readers about the Rule of Law.

The second sentence comes close to being an outright lie. Suddenly the authors drop the politically correct adjective “undocumented” and make the “victims” of the law “immigrants.” This is a rhetorical “bait and switch,” for legal immigrants should not suffer as a result of the law at all. But leaving off the indispensable “undocumented’ (or, more accurately, “illegal”) allows the authors to slip “the organizations that try to help them also will be compromised” by the reader’s logic alarm. Heavens, what a dastardly law! Organizations that knowingly aid and abet criminals will be compromised!

The article goes on in this vein, as the authors dodge, obfuscate and generally use every trick in the book to convince readers of the righteousness of their cause without being straightforward about what is really involves. Illegal immigrants who would “suffer” as a result of the proposed law are described as an elderly “gentleman,” a “young mother,” a “committed student,” a “16-year old,” all descriptions intended to obscure the fact that laws properly punish people for what they do, not for who they are. Finally, Lyall and Jacinto pull out all the stops, arguing that it is “callous” to penalize illegal immigrants’ “hungry children” by holding the law-breaking parents accountable. The invalid ethical standard implicit in this argument is truly mind-boggling. By this logic, it is callous to punish any criminal with the foresight to have needy children and the wit to be their sole support.

In advocacy settings, lawyers serve their clients by arguing their interests zealously and persuasively. They have not only the right but the obligation to frame issues in the manner most favorable to their clients’ point of view. But in trial, negotiation and the exchange of briefs and memoranda, one side’s rhetorical excesses are mitigated by the counter-arguments of the other, not to mention ethical standards that judges do not like to see ignored. But in the op-ed pages, lawyers and everyone else has an ethical obligation to argue their position without deceiving readers or fostering public misconceptions and ignorance. If they can’t make a persuasive case without twisting facts, misusing language and misleading their audience, they have a simple and ethical alternative.

Don’t write the article. Or to paraphrase an old saw, “if you can’t say something honestly, don’t say anything at all.”

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