Sunday, May 27, 2007

Social Justice and the Mexican Border


I have pondered the issue of illegal immigration, and I have come around over the years very slowly and reluctantly to the position that I now hold, even as I am always open to hearing other points of view that are well articulated. Unfortunately, I've found many arguments on both sides of the issue wanting. Many of those who favor un-mitigated immigration across our borders discuss the topic in the context of promoting social justice, as understood as confronting the injuries that rich have promulgated against the poor.

Simply put, justice is the calculation of fairness, the exercise of fairness and the prosecution of fairness. From that essential starting point, there are many forms of justice, including jurisprudence, that deal with different jurisdictions of life wherein questions of fairness are tested. In Scripture, the prophet Amos specifically discusses social justice, and Jesus calls us to "faith justice and mercy". Mercy is clearly a value that we are called to practice on an interpersonal level, but how much should mercy be exercised by the government in relation to the application of the justice and jurisprudence? This post is the beginning of an ongoing attempt to begin to explore the complexities of justice when justice and mercy are complicated.

I have written a speech wherein I imagine myself giving a speech as if I were President of the United States. Writing this imaginary speech has been an exercise in trying to begin deal with the complexities of justice and mercy in regard to the current issue of illegal immigration. This "speech" also contains a redaction of many points that have already been made before on the issue.

"My fellow Americans,

"While it is possible to be racist and anti-Latino as a reason to care about border security and immigration, racism and bigotry are in no way inherent in having an interest in protecting our borders and the integrity of our legal system. While it is true that the northern border needs to be made more secure, and that our coasts need to be made more secure, it is our southern border where the vastly greatest number of illegal immigrants comes from. Our energy on border issues needs to be proportional to the scope of our problem, and it is our southern border that needs special attention.

I have known and liked many illegal Latino immigrants who are sweet, quiet hard working people, and the thought of doing something that would disrupt their lives is a painful prospect. Our current situation that allows many sweet, quiet hardworking people to cross our borders also allows many people who are a threat, including gangs, criminals and terrorists. It is an unfortunate reality, one that adults must face in dealing with this issue: we cannot confront the problem of border security in a way that deals with the bad people without also impacting the ability of good people to make it across.

One could argue that we should merely interdict the bad people who enter after they've crossed the border and leave the good ones alone. While we must, of course, interdict bad people who've crossed onto our soil as an unavoidable part of law enforcement, it does not make for a good foundation for our immigration policy to do this at the expense of tightening the border. Interdicting bad people who are here in the US after they have crossed the border means that these bad people will be first crossing the border and inflicting harm on US soil before they are caught. Our immigration policy must be based on a more serious and concerted effort to control who enters our country so that bad people enter as infrequently as possible.

Allowing many sweet, quiet, hardworking people to cross our borders illegally is beneficial to many parties. Illegal immigrants benefit, the families and homelands of many illegal immigrants benefit from remittances, and many US business interests benefit. Nevertheless, despite the ways that illegal immigration is benefiting many parties, it is eroding the integrity of our legal system and the integrity of many other key institutions that are necessary for our society. This erosion is not happening because the majority of individual illegal immigrants are especially evil or flawed people: most of them are decent people acting rationally in their own personal interests to try to better their lives. The erosion of the integrity of our legal system and institutions is happening because our society is only able to assimilate a certain number of people at a time.

While determining that number is an arbitrary and inexact science, it is necessary for us to arrive at a number and respect the number that we have arrived at. This is the very essence of a value for the rule of law. The alternative is that we find no such number, and allow our system to be overwhelmed. The integrity of many other institutions and interests in our society, including – but not limited to— our budgets, hospitals, schools, social security system is at stake. Being able to predict and manage the flow of new people into our country allows us to plan and budget accordingly. It also allows us to better culturally integrate people into the E Pluribus Unum that makes our country strong and great. It is in the advancement of this interest that managing the flow of people into our nation is the right and the responsibility that comes with being a nation.

One could try to make a counter-argument to this by saying that our country has benefited from immigrants. Of course our country has benefited from immigrants. However, this is a non sequitor as a response to the current problem of mass illegal immigration from the southern border. The current southern border illegal immigration issue is not the same issue as the immigrants who crossed the Atlantic at the turn of the 20th century. Those immigrants arrived at our invitation and put an ocean in between the Old Country and their new home in America. In fits and starts, they assimilated into the new, American way and came to recognize George Washington as the father of their country as much as any other American. We are at a time in our history when we do not need the mass influx of people in quite the same way that we did in the last century. The mass influx that we are facing now is overwhelming our institutions, and we need to have it slow down so that those who are coming in to be citizens can be assimilated.

Many of the illegal immigrants of today are more geographically and culturally connected to their homeland than the immigrants of the past, and often consider the US to be an extension of their rightful homeland. Many of them still wave the flags of their homeland and vote in their homeland's elections, and demand that the language of their homeland be institutionalized alongside the English language in every manner of document. While Spanish is a beautiful language, there is a potent symbolism in making it co-equal to English in America in every public space and on every public legal document. Having two languages side by side is as potent a symbol of dual allegiance as having two flags. This phenomenon on the current grand scale has no precedent in any of waves of immigrants who arrived in this country at the turn of the 20th century.

This is not to say that the heritage the Spanish language, of Mexico or of any other south of the border country is bad and must be rejected. It means that a dual allegiance that increases in scope will make it increasingly harder to assimilate people and their children into the American heritage. Our country must have both the Unum and the Pluribus to be strong, and the current illegal immigration problem on its current course is leading us away from E Pluribus Unum.

Immigrants must make a meaningful and symbolic break with their allegiance to their homeland of origin so that they may fully bond to our nation as citizens. While this is true for all current immigrants from any part of the world, this is especially true for those who are geographically close to us. It is our prerogative as a nation to decide how many immigrants we can accept. It is our prerogative as a nation to make the laws that an immigrant must follow to become a citizen.

This is not to diminish the personal sacrifice and hard work that many illegal immigrants have made to get where they are. While this is usually a great sacrifice of personal effort to find personal gain for one's family, it is not the same sacrifice of one's identity and allegiance as one who has followed all of the rules to become a US citizen. The sacrifice that bonds a person to our nation and to all of the ideals of our nation as a fellow citizen must be that unique form of sacrifice that holds the law of our land in highest regard. It is in following those laws -- that we as a nation have decided – and in valuing the wisdom that lies behind those laws that an immigrant makes the meaningful symbolic break with the allegiance to his homeland of origin and crosses the threshold to become a US citizen. An illegal immigrant who wants to change the U.S. laws ex post facto to fit his behavior is not properly bonding himself to our nation.

And likewise, U.S. corporation or politician that wants to change the immigrations laws to accommodate the current situation is not operating in the best interest of our nation in the long run. All too often, they are serving their more immediate interests to please their constituents or to maintain their current business situation than they are interested in the long term interests of our nation. While wanting to "help the economy" is a valid goal, there is an interest of our collective citizenship of the E Pluribus Unum that is even higher than the economy. We are citizens of a nation first and foremost before we are members of an economy. When the interests of the economy are the first source of our allegiance over and above the well-being of our nation, we are doomed to be corrupted and subverted.

Some have proposed making changes to our immigration laws to allow for temporary workers. The problem with this is that we will not be able to enforce new immigration laws if we cannot enforce the ones we already have. We will no more be able to control the flow of those individuals across the border to get their temporary jobs under this proposal than we are now able to control the flow under our current immigration regime. Under this proposal, we will no more be able to enforce the "temporariness" of those workers under new laws than we are able to enforce the status quo under the current laws. Without the will to enforce the laws that we now have, any proposal to change our laws to confront the problem of illegal immigration is an empty proposal and will not fix our broken system.

Simply allowing an illegal immigrant who is already established here to pay a fine to begin the process of becoming a legal citizen will not solve the problem we now face. This is because this proposal would allow illegal immigrants to work their way out of the act of having broken the immigration laws that made them illegal in the first place. As others have stated, it would unwittingly establish the act of breaking our laws as the basis for one to begin the path to citizenship. And for every other illegal immigrant who did not want to pay the fine, the system would continue to operate in the broken way that it has been operating.

While disrupting the lives of many nice and hardworking people is a painful thing to do, it will be an unavoidable aspect of restoring integrity to our legal system. In the face of the flesh and blood people who will be uprooted, the idea of preserving the integrity of our legal system might seem as cold, remote and abstract interest. However, it is in our best interest in the long run to preserve the integrity of our legal system. Doing so means that we maintain the value for the rule of law, which means that we preserve a value for all of the long term interests that laws are created to protect even when they are sometimes inconvenient in the short term.

It is true that the Bible speaks of justice as it relates to helping the poor and correcting the historical injuries that have been done to the poor. There are historical injuries that the U.S committed against poor Mexicans – as have the Aztecs, and then Spanish and then Mexican oligarchy and the Central American drug lords and sundry leftist rebels. This does not excuse the U.S. of its responsibility to face its past. In a separate discussion, we can debate whether reparations should be made to Mexico for the Mexican American war or for "Greaser laws" of the turn of the 20th century. We can balance out the things that the US took and the ways that the US has benefited Mexico over the years see where the balance lies. What we cannot do is use the broken state of the current immigration laws as the de facto and undeclared "reparations" to Mexicans for any and all sins of the US against Mexico and/or poor Mexican citizens. In the context of the current immigration debate, any appeal to "justice" to help the poor illegal immigrant that frames the issue as exclusively the U.S. vs. the poor Mexicans is simplistic and injurious to the truth. An idea of justice that comes at the expense of facing the more abstract and long term considerations of what is in the best long term interests of the US and US institutions is a narrow and incomplete idea of justice. It is an attempt to correct a series of injuries with yet another injury.

Some will argue that we cannot take such drastic measures on account of the pragmatic concerns for our national security. They say that while our current immigration situation presents some degree of threat to our security, having an unstable situation south of our border would also be a threat to our national security in a different way. This is a valid concern. In our current situation, the US absorption of illegal immigrants has functioned to mitigate against that potential economic and political instability south of our border. As we in the US move toward seriously enforcing the laws that we currently have, we also need to be open to ways that we can help avert the disruption that would occur south of the border as a result of enforcing those laws.

I don't have the complete answer to this problem, though micro-lending NGO's in Central America may play a role. The governments of countries in Central America also need to find ways to better support entrepeneurship, confront corruption and become places where people don't feel the need to emigrate from. Confronting this potential problem will be complex, and it is an uncertain future that we must face. What we cannot do is work backward from the corruption and dis-function of other countries as a reason to diminish the integrity of our own laws.

It is true that certain parts of our country have deep historical and cultural ties to Mexico. These parts of the country have an American culture that has absorbed many aspects of Mexican culture. I personally enjoy this as I walk down the street where I live in Southern California. While it is valuable for these parts of the country to recognize and celebrate their heritage and the blend of cultures that has occurred, these parts of the US need to be recognized as belonging to the US and operating under the dominion of US laws.

It is tempting for those who value a globally inter-connected world to conclude that maintaining the integrity of our borders or the integrity of our national identity is an enemy to this interconnectedness. It is easy to believe that borders only promote a sense of bigoted and narrow identity among those who identify with one side of the border or the other, and that truly enlightened people don't need borders. While the existence of borders may help enforce the bigotry of some people, the belief that borders are useless is a belief that seems enlightened but is actually sloppy, dangerous and inaccurate. In truth, our borders and immigration laws are a necessary membrane between countries that have a relationship culturally, economically, geopolitically and in many other ways. It is in the interest of what is best for that membrane that we need to face the problems of our broken immigration system.

The answer to this issue of illegal immigration must be one that has the ultimate best long term interests of all parties. Our current practice of having under-enforced immigration laws seems on the surface to be helpful to the most parties, but it is actually shortsighted and will not be in our best interest in the long run. What will be in everyone's best long term interest is an immigration system that is consistent, transparent, properly enforced and sustainable long into the future.

The idea of mass deportations seem scary and unpleasant, but it is part of the bitter pill that must be swallowed to get there. The argument that this is impractical is an empty argument, since it only means that it will be difficult, messy and expensive. Any course of action we take will be difficult, messy and expensive including the course of taking no action or of taking "path of least resistance" action. In the long run, it is in doing what is in our best long term interest that will be most practical."

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