On Immigration, What Price the Rule of Law?

by Charles C. W. Cooke

Lurking among the legitimate differences of opinion as to what shape the impending immigration reforms should take is a pernicious idea: That immigration laws that one doesn’t personally favor should not be enforced while they remain on the books, especially if they are now up for debate. In my exchanges over the past week or so, I have observed that merely mentioning the rule of law when discussing immigration elicits hysterical scoffing from the Left, often followed by supercilious moral preening, semantic evasion, and the introduction into the debate of a certain false complexity. Some object to calling illegal immigration by its name.

Those who shout, “We’re not going to deport 11 million people” are almost certainly correct. Likewise, those who say that the current system is a mess. But ardor for reform is no argument against enforcing the law as it stands. We’re not going to find all of America’s tax evaders either, and attempting to do so would be beyond the powers of the IRS and the scope of any reasonably limited government. Does that mean when tax evaders present themselves they should be ignored?

We hear much about people “living in the shadows,” and I suppose there are many people who are. But what of the ones who are not? What of the ones who, as in this morning’s Senate hearing, walk into Congress screaming that they are illegal immigrants and demanding “justice”? What of those who turn up to the State of the Union? What of Jose Antonio Vargas, a man who is so deep “in the shadows” that he’s written Time and New York Magazine covers on the subject of his illegal status. Is there something different about illegal immigration than illegal everything else? If there is, it was certainly not made clear to me during my two-year immigration process — quite the contrary, actually.

If there’s not any difference and the law is the law is the law, then I’m unsure why the scofflaw position is regnant. I suppose that if I announced that I owned a cache of illegal weapons — “look, we’re never going to round them all up!” — I’d be invited to the State of the Union and to testify in Congress? I suppose people would argue against my prosecution and incarceration on the grounds that I am a taxpayer and that I contribute to America? How far do you think I would get after putting my name to a National Review cover story on “What is a gun? My illegal automatic weapon stash in New York City.” My suspicion is that spouting off about unjust laws being no laws at all, or chanting “no fully automatic M16 is illegal!” or correctly pointing out that lots of people who do illegal things are good people, or saying over and over again that the rules need changing, or saying that people jaywalk or have parking tickets wouldn’t be sufficient to get me past the fact that I had broken the law.

Prosecutorial discretion is a necessary thing. There are so many illegal immigrants committing so many (variously serious) offences that the government is forced to prioritize. While doing so, it can make the case for change, blame the current system for the problem, and highlight what it wishes. But is it really too much to ask that the federal legislature does not parade the immunity of those who are here illegally so brazenly in front of the nation? There is a double-standard here somewhere. If pointing it out makes me heartless or a rube, then so be it.

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