An Apology, Not a Fine

During the last week in January, frameworks for American immigration policy changes were unveiled by both President Obama and a group of senators from both parties. Both frameworks propose legalizing the status of millions of undocumented immigrants, which would be wonderful for these individuals. However, both involve the payment of a fine as part of the application for legal status. While legalization with a fine is preferable to the status quo, imposing a fine is inappropriate.  Undocumented immigrants deserve an apology with their legalization, not a fine.

These fines of unspecified amounts are apparently meant to punish immigrants for violating the law by either entering the country without permission or staying beyond the period of time permitted by their visas. Mr. Obama’s framework states that “immigrants living here illegally must be held responsible for their actions by passing national security and criminal background checks, paying taxes and a penalty…” The senators’ framework states that their legalization process would involve undocumented immigrants “… settling their debt to society by paying a fine and back taxes…”

But haven’t undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S. been punished enough? Many have had to endure the expense and hardship of sneaking across the U.S. border, paying smugglers large amounts for their services, and exposing themselves to harsh terrain, weather, and criminals. Once in the U.S., they have faced limited employment opportunities, often having to work for low wages under abusive employers who ignore labor laws. They have had to live with the constant fear of apprehension, detention, and deportation of either themselves or family members. Some have been separated from family members who have been detained or deported.

Moreover, prohibiting their entry or ability to stay was immoral in the first place. The Open Borders site offers a number of arguments showing that restricting immigration is unjust.

Another argument against restrictions which is germane to American policy can be added.  While the argument on its own does not make a complete case for an open borders immigration policy, it does create a presumption in favor of such a policy in which the burden is on opponents of the policy to prove that it would not be not morally correct.  The argument is founded on the concept that a large portion, probably a majority, of today’s Americans are the beneficiaries of largely open immigration policies for Europeans and Canadians which existed before restrictionist laws were instituted in the 1920s. Until the federal government took control of immigration in the late 19th century, colonies and then the states had some restrictions on the immigration of some groups, such as paupers. However, Mae Ngai of the University of Chicago states in Impossible Subjects: Illegal Immigrants and the Making of Modern America that “until the late nineteenth century in the United States, immigration was encouraged and virtually unfettered.” Even after the federal government assumed control of immigration in the late 19th century, Ms. Ngai notes that “as a practical matter mass immigration from Europe faced few legal impediments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century… Despite the growing list of excludable categories, the Immigration Service excluded only 1 percent of the 25 million immigrants from Europe who arrived in the United States from 1880 to World War I.” Before the 1920s, immigrants did not face the maze of requirements that exist today, such as having family in the U.S., particular skills, or a job offer, nor were there annual limits on the number of immigrants.

How many Americans today are U.S. citizens because their European or Canadian ancestors were able to easily immigrate before the 1920s? Probably a majority. About 63% of the current U.S. population is non-Hispanic white. It is difficult to precisely determine the percentage of this group whose ancestors came before the 1920s, but some estimates can be made. In 1920, before the restrictive immigration laws, about 95 million out of the about 106 million people in the U.S. were counted as “white,” which one can safely assume were the immigrants or descendants of immigrants who benefitted from the open immigration laws. While about 13 million European, Canadian, and Oceanian immigrants have arrived since then, it is safe to conclude that a large majority of today’s European Americans, perhaps about 90%, are the descendants of the 95 million “white” Americans from 1920. European Americans are still the largest demographic group in the U.S. today, and most of them (myself included) are citizens today due to the much more open pre-1920s immigration systems.

There are other fortunate European Americans who owe their citizenship to ancestors who broke the immigration laws of the 1920s or the restrictionist laws that replaced them. Attesting to the fact that many European immigrants have been illegally in the U.S. since the 1920s, the Immigration Policy Center states that about 200 thousand Europeans illegally present in the U.S. received amnesties from 1925 to 1965. One illegal entrant was the grandfather of Frank Bruni. Mr. Bruni, a columnist for the New York Times, writes that his Italian grandfather entered the U.S. illegally in 1929 and that “… for a long time, like the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants at the center of our current political debate, Mauro Bruni wasn’t supposed to be here. He was trespassing in the country he came to love more fiercely than the one he’d left, the country in which his children and their children would lead highly productive lives, pay many millions of dollars in taxes over time, and get to be a small part of the decision, as voters, about how we were going to treat his spiritual descendants, who traveled here as he did: without explicit invitations or official authorization but with such ferocious energy, such enormous hope.” While not advocating for open immigration, Mr. Bruni adds that “more Americans than admit or even know it have roots like mine and are the flowers of illegal immigration… it must inform our understanding of the people whose tomorrows are in the balance.”

The Immigration Policy Center notes that “many people assume that their family immigrated to the U.S. legally, or did it ‘the right way.’ In most cases, this statement does not reflect the fact that the U.S. immigration system was very different when their families arrived, and that their families might not have been allowed to enter had today’s laws been in effect.” Most of today’s Americans should recognize that their citizenship is due to the good fortune that their forebears entered when America was mostly open to immigrants or that when the gates were later mostly closed their predecessors broke the law to get here. The implication is that the imposition of harsh immigration laws by these Americans on today’s immigrants may be unjust, and, in cases where the ancestor broke the law, hypocritical.  Unless there is strong evidence that an open immigration policy is not morally correct (other arguments show that an open borders policy is indeed the only moral policy), current immigrants should be allowed to move as freely (or more freely) into America as did the ancestors of most European Americans.

Almost twenty years ago, after undocumented immigrants from China arrived on a ship named the Golden Venture that ran aground off Queens, New York, A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times wrote in a column entitled “Give Them a Parade”: “Let them in, those heroes from China, those men and women who sought the beautiful land, let them out of detention as swiftly as possible and then treat them with the courtesy, dignity and respect their brave hearts merit — that is what America should do for its own soul’s sake…we can show we remember who we are — a city that was made in large part by immigrants and refugees — by opening ourselves to their spiritual descendants, the Chinese of the Golden Venture.” A parade for the millions of undocumented in the U.S. today might not be feasible. But legalization without fines would be. So would an apology, for unjustly imposing immense suffering on a group that came to America with the same dreams as immigrants of past centuries.

Joel Newman

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

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