America, we have a problem. Millions upon millions of people want to move here. Permanently. Even a country as prosperous as ours cannot possibly absorb so much humanity.
As problems go, however, this is not a bad one to have. For the day that “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” no longer besiege America is the day we will have to admit that America has lost its “magic formula.”
What is this formula? What makes America a beacon of freedom and limitless opportunity that draws people from every corner of the planet?
Numerous ingredients peculiar to the American experience have enabled our nation to transform itself from a group of puny, dependent colonies into the leader of the free world. Surely, freedom and prosperity are two huge magnets compelling people to leave their loved ones and try their fortunes in America. But other developed countries can make comparable promises; freedom and prosperity alone cannot account for our unmatched allure. What does account for this allure is our firm commitment to the rule of law.
The U.S. boasts the world’s oldest living constitution. That document, and the federal, state, and local laws enacted in accordance with its strictures, set the parameters by which we live in this “land of the free.”
The rule of law is a vital concern in our nation’s struggle with its immigration problem. It is front and center today in the debate over Arizona’s new immigration-enforcement law. This law has stirred up so much emotion that it’s becoming difficult to have a civil discussion about what it actually says, much less what we should do about illegal immigration. To resolve the issue, we must have both discussions.
The American commitment to the rule of law traces back to the Founding Fathers’ conception of a stubbornly rigid Constitution. The Founders created a republic that required majority agreement in two legislative chambers, along with the president’s agreement, to make laws. The law of the land remains further subject to both Supreme Court review and popular correction (through elections or constitutional amendment).
Respect for the rule of law seems natural to most Americans, but it is largely an anomaly in the history of other nations. Nowhere is this more evident than in Latin America. South and Central America have seen scores of military dictatorships and autocracies, despite endorsing democracy and democratic institutions, since freeing themselves from the shackles of Spanish colonialism. Bolivia has had 17 constitutions in 200 years. Mexico has had three. Cuba, which has suffered under the Castro dictatorship for the past 50 years, has had five in a little over a century. Far too many of the region’s leaders have learned the fine art of manipulating electoral politics in order to install themselves as autocrats or dictators. Such a process is underway in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela today.
The inconsistent adherence to the rule of law has made it difficult for democratic institutions to flourish in Latin America. Moreover, repeated flouting of the law by political and military leaders undermines respect for the law among the general public. This is evidenced in everyday life: Consider the streets of many Latin American countries, where simple traffic laws are violated almost universally, and with near-total impunity.
It’s no surprise, then, that some immigrants from Latin America evince a residual disrespect for the rule of law in this country. It explains why so many undocumented workers remain convinced that they have done nothing wrong by entering our country illegally. Their desire to work hard and provide for their families is, for them, enough to justify their actions — the rule of law is an extraneous concept.
For America to remain a beacon to the world, casual attitudes toward the rule of law must evolve into an understanding and full-fledged appreciation of its merits. The rule of law protects our freedoms and enables us to pursue happiness. Absent a healthy respect for the rule of law, corruption, despotism, and chaos soon advance.
A healthy respect for the rule of law argues against a blanket grant of amnesty to the millions living among us who came here illegally. Some are tempted to brush off violations of immigration law, contending they’re not as bad as other crimes. But if we are to survive as a nation of laws, our officials cannot pick and choose which laws they will enforce and which violations they’ll just let slide.
To be sure, immigration serves a vital purpose for our country. Our nation and all we stand for are renewed and revitalized at every naturalization ceremony. But if we are to remain “America,” we must understand what makes this country exceptional. The rule of law is an indispensable ingredient in America’s formula for success. Immigration policy must affirm the rule of law and foster continued respect for this essential pillar of democracy.
– Israel Ortega is a senior media associate for broadcast services at the Heritage Foundation.