In the Letters section of The Economist this week, a few people wrote in defending the deportation of illegal immigrants in America. The logic was basically that these people have broken the sovereign laws of America and amnesty only rewards rule-breaking. Why go through the incredible hoops and costs of legal immigration when you know amnesty is just on the horizon? Isn’t this unfair to those who have followed the rules and spent a fortune on fees to get citizenship legally?
I used to agree with this logic, but now I’m not so sure. Illegal immigrants are illegal so in one sense holding them accountable for breaking the law makes sense. But what about when the law is unjust? As I get more sympathetic to a policy closer to basically-open-borders I see any restriction on migration (aka free trade of labor) as unjust.
You can think of it a few ways, though the level of convincing any of these analogies will do is largely dependent on your agreement with the unjustness of the laws. First, I want to let free all non-violent drug offenders from jail. I think the War on Drugs is embarrassing. Pardoning all of them – one might say, well what about all those who went through the hassle of getting their medical marijuana prescription, or who paid to get a license as a dispensary in Colorado or Washington? Aren’t you just forgiving people that broke the law? On the further extreme, if we pardoned all those who refused to pay a poll tax – what about all those poor people who saved up for months so they could vote in the 1800s? They followed the rules, aren’t we just rewarding people for breaking the rules?
The point is that granting amnesty to people who have broken an unjust law really shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Yes, illegal immigrants are by definition illegal. But if you think they should be legal this doesn’t really matter. I know there’s a delicate balance between rule of law and civil disobedience. But this seems to be yet another case of the two sides talking past each other.