Skip to Content

What Is Our Responsibility for the Undocumented Population?

23 Jan

By Jason Lee Steorts, National Review

I am not an orthodox Christian, nor have I any wish to be one, but I did attend a Christmas service a few weeks ago, and what I liked most was the singing of well-known, omnidenominational Christmas carols. What I most liked about that was the singing of the middle verse of each in Spanish, the language in which it appeared in the program/vocal score: for the congregation combined native speakers of English and Spanish, and the service was of a sort that happens once per year, making segregation impossible. The presiding clergyman was himself not a native speaker of English.

As I sang in my accented Spanish and heard a woman behind me singing, before and after, in her accented English, I tried to imagine — not assuming it was her situation but assuming it was that of at least one person present — what it must be like to fear that your life and your family will be broken apart and you deported, after a years- or decades-long sojourn in the United States, not for the commission of any violent crime or any felony but, say, for negligence in responding to the bureaucratic exigencies of your “immigration status.” Singing with such a person in his or her native tongue felt like a small gesture of solidarity that, pointless though it was in human terms, could not have been invisible to God.

As I sang I also thought of those who would call me a “cuck” — a slur that, like any, does not substitute for a thought — for having felt this way. I figured they would have used the same term against my old friend Bill Buckley for speaking his first language, Spanish, learned from family servants in Mexico, whenever he had the chance to speak it, and for speaking it with a manifest sympathy for those with whom he spoke.

Using a word I learned from him, I present some of my immigration credenda.

I think that immigrants to the United States should learn English for their own good and for the sake of social cohesion, and that we should be patient and helpful while they do so. I think that illegal immigration is undesirable and to be prevented, through means that do not destroy the lives of the peaceable illegal immigrants we have already allowed to settle here. I think that practical indifference to illegal immigration, often motivated by the best of intentions, has created a huge limbo population that is highly vulnerable to populist predations and partisan manipulation. I think that assimilation — defined in terms of assent to the Declaration of Independence rather than adoption of cultural contingencies — is necessary and good. I think that our immigration priorities should be broadly “merit-based,” in part to help ensure that those who come can lead dignified lives; but I also think that not all skills are designable with credentials, that the willingness to immigrate to a skilled, prosperous country is itself the manifestation of a skill of character, and that what looks to us winners of the birth lottery like an undignified life might be vastly preferable to penury and disease and unpredictable, unavoidable, unimaginable crime in a developing country. I think it is often better for refugees to resettle in countries similar to the one they fled, provided they are safe there, but that this is not an excuse to refuse giving whatever help we uniquely can; and if you say that it’s unfair to help some people if we can’t help all of them, I’ll have to quote the story about the starfishes on the beach at you.

For example. One regular observation on the right is that Latino immigrants, according to polls, tend not to support Goldwater- or Reaganite policies. Jason Richwine made this point at NRO a few months ago, in making the argument that Jeff Flake’s “steadfast” support of “mass immigration” had undermined Flake’s policy priorities. Narrowly construed, this is an unremarkable piece of political analysis, but what kind of broader view might it be used to support?

Here is one kind of reaction: “Mass uncontrolled immigration can lead to unexpected shocks and machinations in our politics, not least because people are tribe creatures full of resentments. This is not fundamentally a point about any demographic group, but rather a point about the need for immigration to be gradual. And it’s not that the only good Americans are Reaganite Americans; it’s that in no case should we use immigration policy to manipulate the composition of the electorate for unrelated policy goals — at least if we wish to avoid pouring gasoline on the dumpster fire of identity politics. Instead, let’s, as befits citizens of a republic, make the best direct arguments we can for the policies we think are desirable and trust that political wisdom is humanly discernible.”

Through our elected representatives, we declined for decades to enforce our immigration laws, giving undocumented immigrants good reason to think they would be allowed to remain. Here is another kind of reaction: “Latinos are undesirable as citizens at least for a generation, perhaps forever. Probably we should try to deport them wherever we legally can. More generally, let’s go ahead and make decisions about immigration in the light of policy preferences unrelated to immigration. People don’t listen to reason anyway, so we’ll have to design the electorate around the GOP platform.”

I want nothing to do with the second sort of reaction, and I find it important to write in a way that doesn’t leave the door open for it.

It is tempting to dismiss such a reaction as belonging to a family of crank views that could never command mass support. And it is comforting, in that hope, to pay attention mainly to the Republican congressional leadership, which is not notably interested in deporting people.

Is the president? As a candidate, Donald Trump polled an audience on what to do with various hypothetical categories of undocumented immigrant. To one belonged someone with a family, someone “who has done a great job, has a job, everything else,” someone who has “been here for 15 or 20 years.” Would it be Option 1 — We throw such people out — or Option 2 — We work with them? “I love this guy,” the president said of the guy who had shouted out his support for Option 1. “This is my guy.” Option 2, however, remained on the table, because “look, this is like a poll,” as the future president explained.

Where it ceases to be a poll and becomes a matter of people’s lives, these three principles, among others, are important:

1) We must reassert the rule of law.

2) Someone is more blameworthy the more knowingly he violated the law.

3) The more we tolerated or cooperated in the violation, the more leniency we should show the violator.

Of course we should try to craft humane immigration policies that are in the national interest, but the simpler and prior problem deriving from Principle 1 is that, in the area of immigration, the rule of law has largely ceased to exist. This must be rectified, and the rectification will preclude any amnesty of illegal immigrants that signals that our laws may be broken without consequence.

Punishment, however, is context-dependent and a matter of degree. We ourselves, through our elected representatives, declined for decades to enforce our immigration laws, giving undocumented immigrants good reason to think they would be allowed to remain. Principle 3 therefore provides a strong argument for leniency. So let’s grant undocumented immigrants who have peaceably established themselves here a path to citizenship after they pay an affordable but symbolically important fine, perhaps scaled to an estimate of back taxes. Those we have accepted de facto as members of our community should be accepted de jure as soon as they submit themselves to the authority of the law.

A similar point about community, this time unrelated to the rule of law, applies to those who were granted temporary protected status in the United States following natural disasters in their home countries. It would be ignoble to welcome people into our community and then expel them on a subsequent whim. Congress should therefore take measures allowing such people to remain in the United States permanently and become citizens. But it should also limit future presidential discretion in this area, lest the oscillating preferences of successive administrations create, to repeat myself, a huge and vulnerable limbo population.

As for the “Dreamers,” those who were brought to the country illegally as children, they provide a limiting case of Principle 2: Someone who is not meaningfully accountable for having violated the law should be held blameless. Dreamers should therefore be offered a path to citizenship that imposes no penalty on them. Their interests should not be considered negotiable in the way that those of the broader undocumented population are.

 If the rhetoric of the Trump candidacy and presidency has maligned huge categories of immigrants and sometimes even entire nationalities, it has done so within the context of a near-total lack of conservative interest in the question, What is our own responsibility for the undocumented population? The tacit assumption seems to be that we do not owe any undocumented immigrants any acknowledgment or protection as members of our community. This would be defensible if we could look at them and say, “Well, it’s all your fault.” But we can’t say that honestly, and acknowledging the reasons we can’t does not amount to conceding that immigration policy should in general be guided primarily by humanitarian concerns.

It will be objected that the kind of framework I propose is unfair to legal immigrants, current or prospective, who were or are willing to “wait their turn.” So it is. But we often have to choose the least of the evils, and I would in this case give up abstract fairness to avoid the alternative of inflicting further grave concrete harm. We can also mitigate the unfairness by (a) taking a welcoming attitude toward prospective legal immigrants while (b) ceasing to lay the foundations of future unfair-in-the-abstract compromises.

It might also be objected that I do not care enough about citizens who have been adversely affected by illegal immigration, for example as victims of crime or downward wage pressure. I have said nothing against deporting seriously criminal aliens; I also have no reason to think that the undocumented population is unusually seriously criminal. As for the working class, illegal (and unskilled) immigration is only one source of its woes, and hardly the most important, but it is a source with a human face and therefore provides a suitable object of hatred. I am for a generous safety net; I am for educational assistance; I am for giving whatever aid to working-class communities will be effective without creating further harm. But if anyone’s hope, like that of Trump’s guy, is to let the deportation orders come down like an eight-digit number of tons of bricks, then that person and I cannot be allies.

Read more at: