Politics & Policy

It’s Fine to Feel Sorrow for the Deportees

Border patrol apprehends an illegal immigrant near McCallen, Texas (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Removal from America, while necessary, can be painful for those removed.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me reiterate some salient points at the outset. The United States border should be, as a matter of practicality and security, both continuous and selectively permeable; the rule of law must be valued to the extent that emotions are not permitted to trump statutes; immigrants such as I were admitted at the sufferance of the existing polity, and may join the citizenry’s ranks only if we continue to follow the regulations; and those who break the rules should be deported. This, in a nutshell, is my position.

Now for another, perfectly coincident, stance: Contrary to the tough rhetoric that we hear in some quarters of the conservative world, holding a hard-line view on immigration enforcement should preclude neither affinity nor kindness, and in such cases as it is allowed to do so, it damages everyone involved. It is by no means weak, indulgent, or wooly-minded to acknowledge that this isn’t always pleasant for those on the wrong end of any regime of exclusion, and it is entirely possible to stand squarely behind the country’s laws and also to recognize that doing so will from time to time be tough. Neither deportations nor refusals of petition should serve as an exception to this rule.

One’s sympathy will vary, naturally. The child brought here illegally at the age of two would likely invite a great deal more tenderness than the 33-year-old who snuck over the border last week. Likewise, the poor Honduran girl who believes the streets to be paved with gold will have a greater purchase on the average set of heartstrings than the Irish student who never returned home after his summer vacation. Still, it should not be too difficult to recognize that none of those who are forced out exactly enjoy it. And why would they? It is precisely because the United States is such an attractive proposition that the country requires a strict and clear set of immigration laws — and a political class that is willing to sternly enforce them. They are not, after all, turning people away in droves in Namibia.

Conservatives should be proud that their beautiful country is such a beacon, even as they insist upon the integrity of its borders. To so coldly pretend that it should not matter greatly to the likes of Jose Antonio Vargas whether he lives in the Philippines or in the United States is to conflate two discrete issues, mixing up what one might wish with what one must do. That sympathy itself does not carry with it the power to repeal settled law is no good case against sympathy itself; nor does demanding consistently that violators be ejected require us to suppress all of our sorrow. Quite the contrary, in fact. To recognize that an outcome is regrettable but to insist upon it anyway is the very essence of the rule of law. Conservatives who find themselves trying to push the outcomes into perfect moral symmetry with the rules will soon see the latter bend and break. Not all those who benefit from our laws are saints; nor are all those who suffer villains. The law is the law regardless.

Which is to say that not everybody who tries to sneak in should be treated as a pariah, and we should not reflexively regard the appearance of aspiring faces on our southern border as a portent of ill. It has always amused me a little that the Salons and Mother Joneses of the world simultaneously believe that the United States is a terrible, racist, unequal, shallow, materialistic, misogynistic sort of place, and that the prospect of dismissing anybody at the border is unspeakably awful; while conservatives believe that the United States is the greatest nation that there has ever been, a shining, glittering city on a hill, and the last, great hope for mankind, and that to loudly acknowledge that it is utterly heartbreaking for would-be immigrants to be rightfully denied admission is only to encourage the lawbreakers. Absent an unwise shift to open borders, there will always be losers in our regime. Our job is to distinguish between those we want and those we don’t. It is not to resent the latter for trying.

Ardent Americaphile as I am, I must confess that I struggle to imagine why anybody wouldn’t wish to come here. Certainly, I would have been inconsolable had my petition been turned down. Concurrently, however, I am aware that countries are fragile and sensitive things; that there are crucial cultural, economic, and political reasons for a nation to control its perimeters; that the question of who may enter any body politic is the sacred affair of those who are already a part of it; and that, a large and creaking welfare system continuing to obtain in the United States, the likelihood of the flow’s self-regulating is nowadays almost nil.

Likewise, while I can barely imagine the horror that an illegal immigrant who has been here for years without being caught must feel when he is finally picked up and returned to his country of origin, I am aware that there are other — more important — values at play. I am more than happy to sign on to the notion that foreigners do not get to flout the rules at will, and that, in doing so, those who break in and hide from the regulations have shown a pernicious disrespect for their chosen home. Still, my acquiescence in the removal of legal violators should in no way be taken as a lack of understanding that being forced to leave the United States is possibly the worst thing that will ever happen to them. Let’s send away those without papers, thereby making it clear to others that the policy is not up for debate. But let’s recognize, as we do so, that the tears are real.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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