Deserts always feel like my natural habitat, and I am very fond of them. That being said, I have, for my sins, spent a fair amount of time in Clark County, Nev., and it is not the loveliest stretch of desert in these United States, or even in the top twelve. Protecting the pristine beauty of the sun-baked and dust-caked outskirts of Las Vegas and its charismatic fauna from grazing cattle — which the Bureau of Land Management seems to regard as an Old Testament plague — seems to me to be something less than a critical national priority. At the same time, the federal government’s fundamental responsibility, which is defending the physical security of the country, is handled with remarkable nonchalance: Millions upon millions upon millions of people have crossed our borders illegally and continue to reside within them. Cliven Bundy’s cattle are treated as trespassers, and federal agents have been dispatched to rectify that trespass; at the same time, millions of illegal aliens present within our borders are treated as an inevitability that must be accommodated. In practice, our national borders are a joke, but the borders of that arid haven upon which ambles the merry Mojave desert tortoise are sacrosanct.
Strangely, many of the same people who insist that Mr. Bundy must be made an example of for the sake of the rule of law protest at the same time that it is not only impossible but positively undesirable for the federal government to deploy federal resources to rectify the federal crime of jumping the federal border.
Apparently, there are trespassers and there are trespassers. The citizens of this country, like those of any country, have an interest in the question of who is permitted to immigrate here and on what terms. Those interests and the ability to act in their furtherance are generally considered to be a substantial part of what we mean by “sovereignty.” Sovereignty has, historically, been regarded as a serious business. But if we judge the federal government by its actions rather than by the words of its functionaries, the defense of national sovereignty is many, many places down the federal to-do list from looking after tortoise welfare.
I myself am fairly liberal on the question of immigration and a sucker for desert creatures that have fewer than eight legs but at least two. There are intelligent and honorable people on both sides of our immigration disputes and on both sides of the Endangered Species Act. But juxtaposing the energetic and heavily armed attempted enforcement of the Endangered Species Act with the utter disregard that the federal government has shown for our immigration laws produces a political equation that is impossible to balance. You could be a strict rule-of-law man and demand rigid enforcement of both immigration laws and environmental laws. You could be a latitudinarian and prefer lax enforcement of both. You could make a case for focusing on legitimate federal priorities and be Attila the Hun on the border but Mr. Magoo on turtle turf. But what argument is there for taking a pass on actual federal responsibilities, among which defending the border looms large, while sending in the big guns against felonious specimens of beef on the hoof?
The relevant facts are these: 1) Very powerful political interests in Washington insist upon the scrupulous enforcement of environmental laws, and if that diminishes the interests of private property owners, so much the better, in their view. 2) Very powerful political interests in Washington do not wish to see the scrupulous enforcement of immigration laws, and if that undercuts the bottom end of the labor market or boosts Democrats’ long-term chances in Texas, so much the better, in their view.
This isn’t the rule of law. This is the rule of narrow, parochial, self-interested political factions masquerading as the rule of law.
If we are to have the rule of law, then, by all means, let’s have the rule of law: Shut down those federal subsidies and IRS penalties in states that did not create their own exchanges under the Affordable Care Act — the law plainly does not empower the federal government to treat federal exchanges identically to state exchanges. And let’s enforce the ACA’s deadlines with the same scrupulosity with which the IRS enforces its deadlines. Let’s see Lois Lerner and a few hundred IRS employees thrown in the hole for their misappropriation of federal resources, lying to Congress, etc. — and let’s at least look into prosecuting some elected Democrats for suborning those actions. And if you want to get to the real problem with illegal immigration, let’s frog-march a few CEOs, restaurateurs, and small-time contractors off to prison for violating our immigration laws — and they can carry a GM product-safety manager and a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration executive under each arm. Let’s talk about enumerated powers.
Tell you what: We can have a nice, interesting debate about the rule of law — but not while Lois Lerner is at large and Charlie Rangel is a prominent feature of public life. Not until a guy who owns a car lot in Waxahachie gets the same deal on his back taxes that Tim Geithner did. But I have the strangest feeling that a great many residents of Washington would not fare especially well under any robust interpretation of the rule of law. It all makes you not want to think too hard about the fact that President Obama has ordered the assassination of more than one U.S. citizen with no obvious legal authority for doing so.
Cliven Bundy may very well be a nut job, but one thing is for sure: The federal government wouldn’t treat a tortoise the way it has treated him. Harassing a tortoise is a federal offense. But harassing the country? That’s federal policy.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.