Justice and illegal immigration


Illegal immigration is one of those topics that tends to divide the best kinds of Catholics. The public statements of the hierarchy seem to be absolutist in nature and to that extent wholly unreasonable. Likewise, political voices on either side of the debate tend towards an off-putting rhetorical excess. The “left” tends to dismiss the legitimate considerations of the state in securing the border, and to ignore the economic and social costs of the problem. The “right” tends to ignore the human consequences of any proposed solution, while failing to make necessary distinctions between different kinds of illegal immigrants. It seems to me that any reasonable policy solution must consider the following realities:

1. All nations have the right – and the duty – to control their borders.

2. The best interests of its own citizens is any government’s primary concern.

3. Nevertheless, a nation may also have moral obligations to non-citizens both inside and outside its own borders. Those obligations vary according to circumstances.

4. The United States has tacitly encouraged and even rewarded illegal immigration for decades. Millions have come here illegally and made their homes with this understanding. It’s much like the speed limit: in many places governments have a statutory limit on the books, but actually enforce something else as a matter of unwritten policy. The difference is that, in the case of illegal immigration, the violators have actually been rewarded by the government. The reality of this situation sharply mitigates – but does not eliminate – the culpability of illegal immigrants.

5. In justice, then, mass deportation of all illegal immigrants is off the table. Such a solution would be a human catastrophe and a punishment that is disproportionate to the offense.

6. At the same time, rewarding illegal immigrants with citizenship and other benefits is also off the table. Such a solution would breed further contempt for the law, and would be an injustice to those who came about their citizenship honestly.

I believe there is a sensible way to make the best of a bad situation. First, deport illegal immigrants who have shown themselves to be otherwise lawless by their involvement with gangs, drugs, violence, etc. That’s a slam-dunk. Second, allow the rest to apply for a special class of permanent legal residency with the help of a citizen sponsor (e.g., an employer or relative). Permanent legal residency is not citizenship. This particular class would exclude the right to vote, and would also exclude the right to certain non-essential public services (e.g., higher education subsidies). Third, announce that within 180 days our immigration laws will be strictly enforced, and then enforce them. Finally, immigration policy should take into account certain emergencies that may arise, such as the unaccompanied children now flooding into the country. They should be well-treated but with the goal of repatriation or, perhaps, adoption by qualified American families.

One can anticipate the objections from both the right and the left. Many on the right will argue that my suggestion is too soft and continues to reward lawbreakers. My reply is that many of these illegal immigrants were acting on the basis of what they understood to be the unwritten policy of the American government. The United States bears significant responsibility for the lives of those affected by decades of “don’t ask, don’t tell” immigration policy. Many on the left will argue that my suggestion creates “second class citizens” without certain rights. I reply that we already have “second class citizenship” written into the law for various kinds of people who are denied the rights of full citizenship – foreign students, children, convicted felons, etc. Those who enter this country illegally, even if their culpability is mitigated, ought to face a penalty of some kind. Inequality is a fact of life and the law needs to accommodate reality.

7 thoughts on “Justice and illegal immigration

  1. Very reasonable, I think. I would add a couple of additional features, but the main things you have are what I would say needs to be done.

    For add-ons: we need to punish the businesses that knowingly hired illegal immigrants precisely because they didn’t want to pay citizens a fair wage. Not necessarily with business-breaking punishments, but severe enough fines that they wish they had done something else.

    My second idea goes along side this: put some small penalties and fines on the ones getting permanent legal resident status. Not harsh ones, but enough so as to help pay for policing the system, and perhaps to offset some of the disruptions their presence causes anyway. And to represent at least some of the money that never made it into the tax system because they were paid under the table. (You can make a sliding scale here: the people who sign up for legal resident status within the first 90 days get a small-ish fine, the people who register between 90 and 180 days get a stiffer fine, etc.)

    This particular class would exclude the right to vote, and would also exclude the right to certain non-essential public services (e.g., higher education subsidies).

    I would say that resident status should exclude virtually ALL such services (not related to safety). Certainly welfare, food stamps, TANF, etc. Part of the point here is to reduce the incentive to do something illegal, and harmful to the host country, and allowing public assistance undercuts that point. We don’t have enough public money to cover all of our own citizens that need such help, and we have no more moral obligation to use these services to cover the (formerly) illegal alien who is here than we have to cover his brother who stayed in Guatemala.

    That does not apply to isolated cases of political and religious asylum, which are special cases. (If they cease to become special because 500,000 people supposedly “qualify” for political asylum, then it becomes a problem at the international level and with the State Department and with enforcing civilized behavior on a nation, not a border and immigration problem.)


  2. Good ideas, Tony. The only thing I’m hesitant about is punishing businesses retroactively. Like thousands of others I myself have hired people who I suspected were illegal immigrants, though I didn’t ask. And I wasn’t trying to cheat anyone out of a just wage. Americans really should be able to assume that their neighbors are here legally, and if they can’t, I don’t see this as something they should be punished for.


  3. Pingback: The pastoral road to Hell is paved with the skulls of bishops | Zippy Catholic

  4. My son is a superintendent of a So, Flo. Golf Course and he can not get Americans to do the drudge (no not that Drudge) work – fly mowing, weed-whacking, fertilising, aerating greens, raking sand traps etc etc and so the course contracts with an outside agency that hires only legal workers and they are paid more than minimum wage.

    There are one million ways to finesse (dodge,escape) the putative legislative laws of these united states but these laws are, like much of America, a joke.

    ABS thinks Mr. Culbreath makes a lot of sense with his suggestions which is why they will not be adopted.

    O, and ABS hires illegal aliens to clean his house and to do yard work; a single Mom and her adult child


  5. The only thing I’m hesitant about is punishing businesses retroactively.

    There is a statute of limitations for a reason, let’s use it. For crimes before whatever the statutory limit is, we do nothing. For crimes within that, we do something.

    I know, I know, …”but we weren’t prosecuting back then, so people came to believe it was OK…” Well, I don’t think that’s enough to sell it. The thing is, even during the period where the media etc. made it look like “we were doing nothing” we actually were enforcing the laws – just not enough, not everywhere, not sensibly, not consistently, and so on: not perfectly. Somewhere in the middle of those years I was called on to serve in a jury to hear a case being tried where the accused was being tried for immigration violations. There was still, in those years, plenty of enforcement activity going on, but it wasn’t enough.

    You could make a very similar case about tax laws and violating that: the IRS only audits about 1 / 100 of the tax returns, and only pursues to the full extent of the law only a portion of the ones where they think the law was being broken. The IRS simply doesn’t have the manpower to audit every return, and they don’t have the manpower to try every case that looks like something illegal was going on – they have to pick and choose, just like my local sheriff does about traffic law violations, etc. In neither the case of taxes nor traffic do we think that “they weren’t enforcing the law” simply speaking, so we shouldn’t punish people who took it into their heads to say “this is OK now”. It isn’t OK and nobody should have thought it was.

    I am also not advocating going after every single violation. I limited it to cases where an employer was paying lower wages than the above-board going rate (to citizens), so that he could cut his costs. This was wrong on several levels: it ultimately encouraged MORE illegal immigration, it cut existing citizens out of decent jobs, and (often) he did it completely under the table and deprived the system of the taxes for such economic activity (and deprived the illegal workers of what should have been workman’s comp protection, unemployment coverage, social security eligibility years, etc.) thus creating a black market that also helped along black markets in illegal products like drugs. Harry Homeowner paying a guy to do his lawn isn’t in the same class (though he is not wholly innocent either if he knows full well the guy is here illegally, and he pays the guy less than he used to pay local kids for the same work.)


  6. Tony. Punishing the weak is the American Way; thus the bailout for the banksters whereas non-male persons are denied cabinet positions because they hired a lawn maintenance man from Guatamela.

    It is silly.

    Letting multi-nationals set-up shop overseas and import their crap without huge import fees has driven down the pay of americans far more than illegal migration and the multi-nationls in the americans have not helped wages either.

    Were there a country to defend, ABS might be with you but we ceased to exist as a country over a century ago; our states are but useless appendages of the leviathan and their rights exist only theoretically.

    How many immigrants will Perry’s Posse apprehend and detain?

    The 9th and 10th amendments have been dead letters forever…

    (ABS hopes this doen’tt come across as churlish)


  7. And don’t forget the bottleneck at the LEGAL immigration line. Some kids in the Philippines (English-understanding, if not English-speaking; Americaphile; literate; even Catholic; with family members legally in the US) have to wait as long as 20 years to be processed. Many drop out after the long wait, since at 21, they cease to be children.
    Why should illegal immigrant children get priority over those in the legal line?


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