Sometimes, the language of the media takes an almost synchronized turn, as though someone had flipped a switch. For the past month or so, news stories about illegal immigrants have been remarkably consistent in stressing the fear they feel: “living in fear,” “fearful of ICE agents,” etc. It is easy to understand why a sympathetic reporter would want to emphasize the fear and the stress felt by these people, who are, for the most part, poor and vulnerable.
But of course people who are breaking the law are afraid of law enforcement. The fear of getting caught is an inescapable part of violating the law. It is the only reason why speed limits are even kinda-sorta obeyed. The liberal attitude here is, in essence, “Gosh, should we feel bad for making them afraid!”
Here is what I think is going on, something that touches a little on Rich’s and Ramesh’s argument about nationalism: Illegal immigration is basically kind of low-level act of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience doesn’t always have a theory behind it or a real political agenda — often it is just that: disobedience, refusal to comply with a law that is seen as unjust or intrusive. Most of the people smoking and selling marijuana do not have any big political idea about it — they simply intend to live their lives and they please, irrespective of what the letter of the law says. The situation with illegal immigrants is unusual in that we have millions of citizens of one country committing a very large-scale act of civil disobedience against the government of another country.
To people who see citizenship and the nation as more than a legal arrangement, that is intolerable. To those who see these as formalities, Mexicans’ being present illegally in the United States is something like violating the speed limit.
Which is to say, how we feel about illegal immigration is more about how Americans feel about America than about how we feel about Mexico or Honduras or Ireland.
Rich and Ramesh write: “Trump’s view of immigration is of a piece with this nationalism — we have the sovereign right to decide who comes here and who doesn’t, and policy should be crafted to serve the interests of U.S. citizens.” Aside from a few fringe libertarians and dotty one-worlders on the left, I have not encountered very many people who dispute that the United States, or any country, has a sovereign right to create and enforce immigration law. There are those who see the elevation of the interests of U.S. citizens above the interests of others as a pernicious form of bias, but the more common attitude is that there really is no such thing as “the interests of U.S. citizens” corporately, or that, to the extent that such interests are real, the legitimate interests of U.S. citizens are not in conflict with the interests of those seeking to immigrate here.
(The Left tends to get Millian in a hurry on these kinds of questions: “Tell me how my gay marriage hurts you!” Etc.)
And thus the emphasis of the fear and stress experienced by those on the wrong side of immigration law. To inflict suffering needlessly is cruelty, and those who take an overly indulgent view of illegal immigration do so in no small part because they do not see the point in enforcing the law, which seems to them cruel. To the extent that we do not agree about what the United States is, we will disagree about why things like citizenship and immigration law matter.
Naturally, I do not expect to read any sympathetic accounts of how generally law-abiding Americans subject to whimsical and capricious interpretations of the law — say, gun-store owners or grocers — live in fear of the ATF or the EPA, and the nice lady with the badge and the gun who took what seemed to me an excessive interest in the relatively trivial issue of my rate of highway travel on a recent trip to California seemed distinctly unsympathetic.
But surely I am not alone in thinking, when I hear NPR reporters choking up about illegals living in fear of immigration enforcement: “Well, good. That is as it should be.”
No one who has traveled much in Mexico or Central America can fail to be sympathetic to the plight of the poor and the powerless there, but one of the things that most plagues such unhappy corners of the world is lawlessness, first and foremost lawlessness on the part of those entrusted with enforcing the law. Lawlessness north of the Rio Grande is no remedy for lawlessness south of it. That lawlessness engenders a great deal of fear and anxiety, too — on both sides of the border.