When interested parties speak of illegal immigrants being in the “shadows,” they often forget to mention that the federal government — along with state and local governments and other public and private entities — has played a major role in cultivating this shadowy realm. The current humanitarian crisis on the southern border makes clear the price of these shadows for both illegal immigrants and the broader body politic of the United States. For years now, the federal message on immigration has essentially been: If you come illegally, you can (probably) stay. Two crucial accents in this policy are “illegally” and “probably.” Under the conditions of pure open borders, every immigrant would be equally welcomed and have an equal right to be in the country. Under the present situation of bad-faith open borders, illegal immigrants are de jure rejected but de facto accepted.
Immigration affects a host of national issues, and a whole network of bureaucratic contortions and derelictions of duty has been established in order to maintain the shadows of bad-faith open borders. Identity theft and fraud, serious crimes according to current American law, are encouraged and essentially allowed for a whole class of people. Municipalities and states provide self-appointed “sanctuaries” against the laws of the federal union. Employers are allowed to violate employment law, increasing the risks of workplace abuses and undermining the position of legally authorized residents.
But what also strengthens the hands of these predators is the legal vacuum created by the current immigration regime. A rigorous enforcement of immigration law would also go after the unscrupulous employers and gang members and traffickers, but the current indifference to law provides these types with shadows within which they can operate. Imagine what child labor would be like in a United States where it was technically illegal but, in practice, it was allowed or even encouraged and subsidized on a massive scale. Child workers would be more likely to be open to abuse and neglect in that situation than in a situation either where child labor was totally allowed or where laws against child labor were rigorously enforced. It is no surprise that, in the contemporary United States, violations of child-labor laws also go hand in hand with illegal immigration: The abuses enabled by indifference to illegal immigration facilitate other abuses and law-breaking.
Under the present administration, we seem to be tending in the direction of a compounding of these shadows. Over the past few months, illegal immigration has gone from a long-simmering problem to an increasingly acute public crisis. Recent polling by Gallup suggests that nearly 20 percent of Americans view immigration as the top problem the U.S. faces. For an administration infamous for its casual and extensive exercise of executive powers, immigration exemplifies the wild reach of executive whim, as the president has seemingly arrogated to himself the power to rewrite immigration law at will.
The current crisis of unaccompanied minors illegally crossing the border has revealed the hollowness of the purported “comprehensive immigration reform” measure that passed the Senate last year, demonstrating three things: that granting legalization provides incentive for more illegal immigration, that more individuals across the globe are still willing to come illegally, and that key allies of the president (and perhaps the president himself) oppose in principle any rigorous enforcement of immigration law. The Senate immigration bill, with its guarantee of instant legalization and hazy promises of enforcement, would likely less have solved the problems of illegal immigration and more have compounded them. According to the standards publicly professed by the architects of the Senate immigration bill (including Senator Chuck Schumer of New York), an immigration bill that increased illegal immigration would not be a successful effort at “reform.”
One of the great — and, frankly, tragic — ironies of the president’s immigration policies is that they get in the way of a long-term, sustainable solution that combines compassion and a respect for the rule of law and that looks out for the interests of both immigrants and the native-born. There is no question that the welfare state as it currently stands cannot exist in conjunction with an immigration policy that welcomes all who are willing to break the law. That is a financial and moral certainty. It is also fairly certain that an escalation of the number of unaccompanied minors will put more financial pressure on already strained state and local governments, and this pressure will be especially keen among the poorest communities. Those who tread the lofty corridors of the West Wing and Georgetown mansions may have enough wealth and power to insulate themselves from the costs of unfettered illegal immigration, but the same cannot be said for the average American. In many respects, the process of unfettered illegal immigration makes war on recent legal immigrants by straining the financial resources of their communities, undermining employment opportunity, and providing a foothold for all manner of organized crime.
What would a sustainable course of a regulated immigration policy look like? Well, first of all, it would do what it could to stop the current crisis from becoming bigger. A moderate course of immigration reform could include a revision in the legal-immigration system (to encourage skills and opportunity) combined with a good-faith effort at enforcing immigration laws by protecting the borders, enforcing laws at the workplace, encouraging local and state compliance with federal laws, and policing identity fraud. This effort could lay the foundation for a targeted legalization of some current illegal immigrants through congressional legislation. That legalization may in some respects be unfair by giving legal status to those who broke the law while denying that status to the millions of poor and striving across the globe who desire to come to America but also believe in following the law. But perhaps that unfairness might be acceptable in the pursuit of a greater sustainable harmony. Investment in many of the nations that are sources for illegal immigration might also figure as part of that moderate solution, financial prosperity in a nation being one of the most effective weapons against illegal immigration from a given country.
The vision of authentic immigration reform should include a defense of the interests of Americans of all stripes, a sense of open-hearted compassion, an emphasis on opportunity and justice, and a respect for some of the foundational principles of the republic. Those are not all the principles that should guide the nation’s immigration policies, but they are some of them. And the current, degenerating system of immigration chaos fails in many respects to live up to those principles. It is neither compassionate nor just to strengthen the hands of human traffickers, violent gangs, and others who prey on the misery and desperation of others. It is not humanitarian to use false promises to lure children away from their families.
And it is only in the long-term interests of predators to undermine the rule of law. John Adams’s emphasis on the importance of a republic as a “government of laws, and not of men” reveals one of the great inheritances from the Founders: the notion of a set of republican laws, constructed in accord with inalienable rights inherent in us as individuals, as grounding the American experiment. Defending that republican enterprise motivated the Founders, inspired Abraham Lincoln, and served as a guiding light for countless generations before us. We should not surrender that inheritance.
Many illegal immigrants face terrible conditions in their home countries, and compassion and empathy for them is a just and noble response. We cannot and should not deny the bond of universal human dignity that unites us all. On the level of essential humanity, an illegal immigrant is no less than anyone else, whatever his wealth or power or lineage. But compassion, empathy, and the rule of law need not be enemies but instead can be the truest of friends.
If the United States surrenders its republican inheritance and the aspiration of ordered liberty, and if the nation dissolves into a honeycombed dominion where the whim of the powerful replaces the rule of law, the beacon that called so many will be dimmed. And that would be a tragedy of surpassing magnitude, both within and without this nation’s borders.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.