My current argument is not one about what the substance of our immigration policy should be (I’ve made such arguments in, e.g., A comprehensive overview of the immigration issue, Legality, Morality, and Reality Regarding U.S. Immigration Policy, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, Basal Ganglia v. Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia Keeping Score, The Nature of the SB 126 Colorado ASSET Debate, Godwin’s Law, Revisited, and A Humane & Rational People), but rather about what the process for determining our immigration policy should be. As always, this argument is just one instance of the larger argument that we should commit ourselves to striving to apply reason to evidence in service to humanity, rather than engaging in careless habits that result in the application of irrationality to ignorance in service to inhumanity.
The focus of this essay is one clearly fallacious argument, that is, in fact, the principal argument used by those who take a stand unyieldingly hostile to millions of people, of a certain status, who currently reside in this country (and, by implication, millions more who would like to, but have no legal pathway toward doing so). Debunking this one argument does not, by itself, debunk their entire position, but rather merely forces the debate into a more appropriate framework, where any and all substantive arguments they may have can compete with any and all substantive counterarguments, in a process which best serves our better angels by giving our baser demons fewer shadows in which to hide.
The fallacious argument to which I refer is that the current widespread hostility toward undocumented immigrants and residents, in which these particular ideologues actively participate, is not only legally warranted but legally mandated. Their error is their failure to understand that the law, in the final analysis, is our servant, not our master. (Yes, in an intermediate sense the utility of the law is that it is binding and not optional, but it is designed to be a malleable and adaptable tool rather than, in its particulars, a fixed and permanent shackle.)
As an aside, the irony of this error is one thread of a larger hypocrisy: The people who make it are overwhelmingly the same people who insist that they are the most committed to “Liberty,” while in reality being the most committed to authoritarianism. But that is a topic for other essays (see, e.g., The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism).
The argument frequently invoked by this particular faction, that their hostility is not directed toward immigrants but rather only toward illegal immigrants, and that the word “illegal” conclusively supports their public policy positions on the issues of immigration and residency, reflects a fundamental misconception of the nature of law and the responsibilities of citizenship in a popular sovereignty. They mistakenly believe that a current legal status quo is the definitive refutation of both any public policy arguments that critique it, and any public policy arguments that defend other aspects of the current or proposed legal status quo that they erroneously consider somehow legally prohibited by some presumed inconsistency with the aspects they prefer. In other words, they presume that public policy arguments can’t challenge existing laws that they do like, and, at the same time, can’t defend existing or proposed laws that they don’t like, the latter based on some presumption of a legal prohibition against the existence of any laws which presuppose the violation of other laws. Both of these beliefs are easily debunked, and their mobilization in service to a blindly ideological position easily demonstrated.
Laws are something we make, implement, interpret, modify, and rescind according to processes that are themselves established by law (see The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government)). They do not define what the conclusion of public policy debates and legal processes should be, but rather what they thus far have been. They obligate, with varying degrees of flexibility, individual behavioral compliance, not collective ideological conformity, rigid administrative enforcement, or perpetual universal legal consistency. The fact that laws do not mandate the latter three is in large measure how they evolve and adapt to changing circumstances, values, and understandings.
The response to an argument that we should, within the constraints and according to the guidelines of our current legal framework, alter or reinterpret or modify our implementation of our legal framework, with the counterargument that we can’t because the current substantive legal status quo is different from what the modified legal status quo would be, is like arguing a century and a half ago that we can’t abolish slavery because the right to own slaves is protected by law (an argument which was, in fact, frequently and persistently made). And to argue that we can’t pass laws short of a comprehensive change of paradigm because it would be an affront to that dominant paradigm is analogous to having maintained that we couldn’t have made the morally laudible step of allowing escaped slaves to attain their freedom in non-slave states because to have done so would have simply encouraged more slaves to escape.
Let me be clear: I am not comparing current anti-undocumented immigrant ideology to slavery. Rather, I am comparing the defense of one set of laws that we recognize in retrospect to have been morally repugnant and well worthy of being changed with the defense of a current set of laws that some (including myself) argue is also morally repugnant and well worthy of being changed, in order to illustrate that the public policy debate should focus on the value of the law rather than on the fact of its existence. A debate can and should be had about whether the current set of immigration and immigration-related laws are ideal or morally repugnant or somewhere in between. The mere fact that that set is the current law is irrelevant to that debate.
(It’s worth noting, however, that there are some similarities: Slaves were considered not to be citizens, a perception codified in law by the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision. Abolishing slavery would have admitted this formerly excluded class into national membership. Allowing escaped slaves to attain freedom but not necessarily citizenship in non-slave states would have been analogous to allowing undocumented immigrants to enjoy some of the opportunities afforded citizens and legal residents without being automatically granted that status itself. The 14th Amendment’s establishment of jus soli, the doctrine that anyone born on American soil is an American citizen, was part of the long-unsuccessful attempt to demolish the legacy of slavery, root and branch, and still has implications relevant to immigration policy. Though the differences are greater than the similarities, the fact remains that exclusionary policies that tend to dehumanize those excluded inevitably resemble one another to some degree. See, e.g., Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding.)
It is our responsibility to determine what our laws should be, while also considering how best to implement and enforce the laws that currently are. Those with a zero-tolerance attitude toward undocumented residents, insisting that we are legally required both to in no way accommodate their presence here and to remove them all regardless of the costs (fiscal, economic, social, demographic, and moral), should also, for consistency, insist that every motorist who ever drifts even just one mph over the posted speed limit should be caught and fined regardless of the costs, and that laws which presuppose violations of the speed limit (e.g., prohibiting driving in the passing lane, even at or above the speed limit, on the basis that it obstructs other motorists who might want to pass) are somehow unacceptable (or themselves “illegal”).
Or, to pick a more illuminating example, even though it is illegal to jaywalk, a motorist is still legally obligated to yield to that law-breaker, who is thus protected from some of the negative consequences of his or her infraction by another law accommodating it. (After all, aren’t we just encouraging more people to jaywalk by requiring motorists not to run them over?)
Again, let me be clear: I am not comparing illegal immigration to speeding or jaywalking. I am, rather, debunking the fallacy that no law can or should exist which presupposes, or even at times accommodates and implicitly “encourages,” the violation of another law. Our laws neither require nor benefit from that kind of rigid consistency: We can, and should, have laws which both prohibit certain activities, and that protect or accommodate those who violate them. Such laws are particularly well advised when the infraction is non-violent and non-predatory, the protection vital to that person’s safety or sustenance, or the accommodation ultimately in the public as well as private interest (such as by giving all residents of the country maximal opportunities to become productive members of society, rather than denying such opportunities and thus increasing the rate of socially, fiscally, and economically costly dependency and predation).
When people oppose, for instance, a law which would allow in-state undocumented high school graduates to attend state universities at in-state tuition rates, with the argument that the current law somehow prohibits the passage of such a law (“what part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?!”), they are inventing a legal doctrine that doesn’t exist (a requirement for perfect consistency among all laws), in order to insist on a particularly vindictive and counterproductive policy position.
Our national debate regarding immigration (as with all issues) needs to focus on what set of policies realized through what legal paradigm best serves our national interests and values. Citing the current legal status quo as an argument in that debate is, in reality, an attempt to insulate preferred elements of that status quo against criticism without having to mobilize any rational or informed argument, or address any rational and informed counterarguments, to do so. At the same time, citing one aspect of the current legal status quo (e.g., the laws against entering and being in the country without legal authorization) as an argument against another aspect of the current legal status quo (e.g., administrative policies not to target for removal those who have not committed other crimes) is an attempt to argue in favor of a change in the legal status quo without having to mobilize any rational or informed argument in support of such a change.
These are not just irrational and, to put it politely, “information-disregarding” arguments in our national debate on immigration policy, but are also instances of a larger contest in American political discourse: The contest between, on the one hand, a commitment to reason applied to evidence in service to humanity, and, on the other, a commitment to irrationality applied to a disregard of the evidence in sevice to inhumanity. It is a contest which those of us who champion the former must win both issue-by-issue, and in more profound ways as well, transcending the individual issues, reaching into the heart of our collective consciousness, transforming with the spirits of reason and goodwill the memes and emes of our own persistent inhumanity.