Protests against irregular migrants

What part of “immoral” don’t you understand?

A common retort to suggestions that our governments regularise the status of irregular immigrants is that these people are “criminals”, they’re “illegal”, and just what part of illegal don’t I understand? The mainstream immigration reform has adopted this rhetoric too, even if they claim to reject it; the rhetoric of US President Obama (who at the time I write just announced a deferral of deportation for some few million migrants) and others has been chock full of insistence that irregular immigrants owe a debt to society, that they ought to do some sort of penance — perhaps pay a fine — in return for any sort of regularisation. In short, the mainstreamers say that they do understand that these migrants are “illegal”, and that they do intend to punish them — just not as badly as the hardcore restrictionists want.

I see no justice in this. As co-blogger Joel Newman says, our governments owe irregular migrants an apology, not a fine. Make no mistake about it: if you’ve done something wrong, if you’ve injured someone or taken someone’s property, you ought to pay the price. But if all you’ve done is an honest day’s work, if all you’ve lived in is a home you’ve paid the price for, then there is nothing to punish you for. Living in the shadows our government forced you into for dreaming of a better future for yourself and a family was more than punishment enough.

The persistent, shrill cries of “what part of illegal don’t you understand?” are pretty blind to the meaning of the term “illegal” in the first place. For instance, most of these people don’t seem aware that it’s not a crime to be present without a lawful immigration status in the US; this is such basic legal knowledge that it didn’t make any headlines when the Supreme Court acknowledged this in an aside as part of a larger ruling on immigration law. For another, most of these people routinely break the law and get indignant when it is actually enforced against them. Just witness the furore when bicyclists are ticketed for cycling on the sidewalk, or when drivers are caught speeding by automated cameras. If committing unlawful acts in the course of ordinary business makes immigrants “illegal”, that makes everyone “illegal”.

Now of course people will say immigration law is on a special plane of existence, something that deserves far more respect than menial traffic laws. Sure. I simply say: let the punishment fit the crime.

The consensus is that half of all undocumented migrants in the US entered lawfully at a border checkpoint, and simply took up residence or employment in violation of the terms of their visa. There is no crime in paying rent for a residence, and no crime in searching for work. If an immigrant applying for my job is stealing from me, then who did I steal from when I applied for the job I hold now? Is it only a crime when immigrants do it?

These undocumented migrants should be punished appropriately for any actual crimes they have committed. If they drove drunk, if they shoplifted, if they committed welfare fraud, whatever — they should do the time, and pay the fine. But they should not be deported or excluded from the country they call home. As long as they are willing to accept the laws of their new home, and accept the punishments of these laws, they should be allowed to stay. They entered legally. The most they should be required to do to stay is fill out a basic form, and submit to legal proceedings for any other unpunished crimes in their past. Innocent immigrants who have done nothing worse than pay rent and earn honest wages deserve an apology for the persecution that our laws unjustly put them through.

As for the other half who entered without inspection at a border checkpoint, they should submit to a screening comparable to what they would have gone through at the border, and register with the authorities. Again, the idea is to make restitution for the original offense. The original offense, in legal parlance, was “entering without inspection”. So let the punishment fit the crime.

But it wouldn’t be fair, you might say. What about all the immigrants waiting in line? Well, whose fault is it that they are waiting in that line? Isn’t it your fault that the government you elected made crappy laws which have kept out all these innocent immigrants, and forced them to choose between waiting in a line that will never end (literally: some visa categories have backlogs that exceed 80 years), or migrating illegally?

I do agree it is not fair to do amnesties in a one-off manner. It is not fair to the good people who want to immigrate legally, but who are banned from doing so by irrational quotas and queues. It is also not fair to all of us who are harmed by the bad apples, the actual criminals, who either hide amongst the innocents in the undocumented population, or worse, take advantage of these migrants’ warranted fear of the government to abuse and exploit them.

Many governments — such as those of France and Germany, to name a couple you may have heard of — do not do one-off amnesties; instead, anyone who migrated illegally but who has otherwise complied with the law for a sufficient length of time is allowed to register with the government and become a legal immigrant. If we can’t have open borders, let’s at least allow anyone who has proven their commitment and loyalty to our laws to come out into the open and register as a law-abiding member of our community. That’s the fair thing to do, instead of having these one-offs.

But at the end of the day, if being fair to those immigrants in line is what bothers you so much, well — it’s the line your government created. The absurdity of having queues backlogged such that people applying today would have to wait an entire human lifetime to get their application approved is something only a government could create. The problem isn’t those good people forced to choose between waiting in line versus entering by other means to rejoin their families or seek gainful employment. The problem is your government and the stupid laws it made up.

Now, those laws aren’t stupid you might say. I agree: to the extent that they protect us from criminals, contagious disease outbreaks, and other harms, they are good laws. But to the extent that they “protect” us from people who just want to pay the market price to live in a safe home and work in a functioning economy, they are bad laws. To the extent that they treat someone whose ambition is to earn minimum wage washing dishes 18 hours a day as if he’s the scum of the earth, they are evil laws.

I’ve written before that the best way to secure the US’s border with Mexico would be to open it. Drug lords and slave traffickers rely on being able to disguise themselves among the masses of innocent people crawling through sewers to rejoin their families; let those innocent people buy bus tickets instead of paying thousands to coyotes, and where will the criminals hide? Restrictionists scoff at the idea of these immigrants being innocent — but you tell me, where’s the sense in treating someone who just wants to mop your floors for minimum wage as if he is the equivalent of a murderous drug trafficker?

I understand the intuition that one should comply with the law, and that failing to comply with the law generally marks you as a bad person — somewhere on the scale between reckless and just plain criminal. But this intuition only works for laws where the burden of compliance applies equally to everyone. Everyone knows what it means to not steal. But does everyone know what it means to comply with immigration law?

I would bet anyone that the majority of citizens of any country have no idea how the typical migrant in their country should comply with their own country’s immigration laws. Why should any of us know? All we ever did to comply with the law was be born. We didn’t have to do anything else, just slide out of the right person’s uterus at the right time, on the right soil.

Anyone in the US who has ever been in trouble with their taxes should know the feeling: you did everything right, and yet apparently your filing was still illegal — the government says you didn’t pay enough taxes. US tax law is so complicated that in some cases even the Internal Revenue Service throws up its hands and admits it doesn’t know what the law says. Yet for all your trouble, the public lambasts you as a tax evader, blasts you for not paying your fair share. And that is pretty rich, when virtually everyone who files taxes has likely fallen afoul of some technicality in the law (did you really report on your tax return the $20 in income you earned from that casual bar bet with your cousin?).

Multiply this frustration a few hundred times over and you can imagine the frustration of complying with immigration law. Some of the best, most honest and decent people I have personally known have been “illegal”. In some cases they didn’t even realise it until after the fact: as a student, your visa bans you from working more than a certain number of hours. Exceed the limit, and bam, you’re “illegal”. In other cases, delays or government processing issues while you’re transitioning from one visa type to another mean that you can “fall out of status” until your new visa is approved. Bam! Illegal.

And these are the lucky ones: they were already present in the US, and nobody could conveniently detect they’d committed these violations of immigration law. Usually nobody would ever be the wiser that they had, for a period of time, been “illegal”. Millions more such innocent people are trapped in the unlucky position of either waiting decades in line, or just jumping a fence that shouldn’t be keeping them out in the first place. Long wait times for immigrants to the US aren’t unusual; they’re the norm. Stories of the insanity of immigration law are a dime a dozen: see this, this, this, or this.

But how many citizens know of this? They know nothing, of course: the law has nothing to do with them. They can feel free to demand 100% compliance with the law, because they will always be 100% compliant. All they have to do is breathe. It’s pretty easy to follow the law when you have to do nothing. How can you demand people follow the law when you yourself have no idea what the law demands, and you yourself don’t have to do anything to comply with it?

I am making no claim to perfection here. As a Malaysian, I have no idea what laws the foreigners living in my country have to comply with. When people ask me about how easy it is for foreigners to live in Malaysia, all I can say is “Well I saw a lot of them in my junior college so I think it’s pretty easy to come in”. I honestly have no freaking idea what our visa laws are; I have no reason or incentive to, because by definition, it is impossible for me to ever break the law!

Claims that “Well, my ancestors followed the law” ring pretty hollow. After all, what laws did your ancestors follow? In the case of most Americans, their ancestors immigrated legally because all you had to do to immigrate was not be Chinese. If by definition it is impossible for you or your ancestors to have broken the law, then it is pretty rich of you to insist that you know exactly what laws others should comply with. Yet people often pretend they know exactly what the laws are, and blame the victims of these abusive laws for not submitting to their unwarranted punishment.

Anti-Chinese poster

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander: if you want people to prove their loyalty and knowledge of your country by passing a test, then why don’t you subject yourself to that same test? Why not? Didn’t your schooling prepare you for that test?

If millions of ordinary people can waste 20 years of their adult lives waiting for government permission to pay rent and apply for jobs, why not you? What makes you so special? Isn’t it unfair to others who did wait those decades in line, who actually complied with the bullshit hoops your government made them jump through? Your ancestors didn’t jump through those hoops — so don’t you owe it to them to follow the law on their behalf?

And so on you go, railing against “amnesty”, even though there’s a good chance if you are American that you are only here today thanks to an amnesty your ancestors arguably didn’t deserve. I refer, of course, to that time some of your ancestors took up arms in violent rebellion against the lawful government of the United States, and were rewarded with an unconditional amnesty for their trouble.

At the end of the day, there is nothing that makes sense about most immigration laws. A handful of restrictions actually target terrorists, criminals, or contagious disease carriers. The rest of these laws just treat people who want to pay market rent for a safe home and the chance to earn the market wage for honest work as though they are criminals for doing the same things as everyone else. There is no sense in treating a minimum wage cook like a cutthroat, and there is no justice.

The real question isn’t what part of illegal don’t I understand; I’m well aware that, at least far as my own country goes, I don’t understand, because I have no reason to! No matter how many laws I break or how many wrongs I commit, I’ll always be in compliance with Malaysia’s immigration laws.

The real question is, what part of “illegal” do you understand at all? You don’t understand any of it. You don’t know what it’s like to be worried that accidentally working one extra hour a week this semester might mean that you’ll get deported. You don’t know what it’s like to earn pennies a day, banned from earning the dollars which your hard work could easily earn you because this year, only 23 people from your country of millions will be given work permits.

The persistence in which people pretend that complying with the law is no burden, that if their ancestors could do it then so can anyone else, truly boggles the mind. Laws which ban parents from paying to put a roof over their children’s heads and ban dutiful children from sending home money to care for their aging parents criminalise the virtues we so often commend to ourselves. What can this be, if not hypocritical injustice? Let me ask you — what part of “immoral” don’t you understand?

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.

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12 thoughts on “What part of “immoral” don’t you understand?”

  1. “I see no justice in this. As co-blogger Joel Newman says, our governments owe irregular migrants an apology, not a fine. Make no mistake about it: if you’ve done something wrong, if you’ve injured someone or taken someone’s property”

    Ok, but the argument assumes that e.g., trespassing or something equivalent is a crime. So, if I go onto company X’s property without permission, I’ve committed one. If I camp out on your family’s property and try to live off the land without permission that’s a crime. Now replace company X with nation Y. Of course, you might argue that trespassing or something equivalent shouldn’t be a crime, just as you might argue that taking or redistributing “someone’s” property shouldn’t be. But that’s another matter. Generally, there’s not much to argue here. The disagreement boils down to deontological and preferential ones. You are just playing a game of smoke and mirrors to avoid confronting that. Notably, when I take time to pull the curtain off these arguments , my comments are ignored, because you’re obviously moved by rationalization not ratiocination.

    “If we can’t have open borders, let’s at least allow anyone who has proven their commitment and loyalty to our laws to come out into the open and register as a law-abiding member of our community.”

    Yet some of us, like me, don’t want everyone who wants to come to the country to. I don’t. Given that interest, it’s obviously rational for us to oppose open borders. If you want I will, of course, explain why. The question is then whether people like me “should” be “allowed” to do this? But what does that possibly mean? How is prohibiting groups or majorities from enforcing borders/property lines and define membership not consistent with common sense morality and basic legal principles? What this question

    1. (Some of the above reply was clipped:)

      …turns out to means is “should” by your moral system, which proscribes doing so from the start, this be allowed. The answer is not difficult to determine.

      What is odd here is the asymmetry. I recognize the local legitimacy of your position. That is, I think it is fine if deport yourself to a country which has abolished its borders, And I have no problems with other people in other countries doing this, just as I have no problem with other people making their property open use. Yet, you don’t reciprocate. Instead of simply demand a universalization of your principles.

    2. Whose property, John, are the immigrants theoretically to have trespassed upon? The government’s?

      If this is your argument, then the assumption you are making is that our government owns America, and rightfully may provide the conditions upon which one may enter their property.

      But the analogy you’re making here is grotesquely incongruous. First, in order to acknowledge the government’s so-called property rights, you must deny me my liberty–to hire, contract, or merely visit with foreigners.

      Secondly, property rights enables me to provide any conditions upon which someone can inhabit my property. I can forbid them from owning guns on my property; I can forbid them from using or owning drugs on my property; I can force them to pay me a fee for, let’s say healthcare, so long as they wish to be on my property. Hopefully you start to see the wild implications of this “government-as-a-person” analogy that you’ve
      Frankensteined.

      But governments aren’t people. They don’t have property rights. And even if we disagree on that point, I would hope we could agree that those governmental property rights only exist in subservience to the natural rights of the citizens under that government. I should hope my freedom of trade, to sell, contract, and hire, or simply visit with foreigners, would render our immigration laws illegitimate under this, frankly, generous rubric.

      1. You: “Whose property, John, are the immigrants theoretically to have trespassed upon? The government’s?”

        It would depend on the political system in the particular nation. In the U.S. the nation and territory is generally thought to be collectively owned by the current body of citizens; the government is simply an agent of the people. As far as I’m aware most political systems currently embrace this idea.

        You: “Hopefully you start to see the wild implications of this “government-as-a-person” analogy that you’ve
        Frankensteined.”

        Government-as-a-corporation seems more or less legally and politically coherent. That’s not the type of country I would care to live in, but unfortunately the situation probably better approximates reality here in the US and abroad than Government-as-agent-of-the-people.

        You: “But the analogy you’re making here is grotesquely incongruous. First, in order to acknowledge the government’s so-called property rights, you must deny me my liberty–to hire, contract, or merely visit with foreigners.”

        There is nothing incongruous here. Property rights necessarily limit freedoms. When I claim something as my individual property I claim that it is not free to be used by others. When I claim something as our collective property, I claim that you are not free to share it or trade it without my agreement. This is standard law and principle. Now insofar as the U.S. is our collective property you don’t have a right to trade it or share it as you will — an agreement between owners has to be come to. Insofar as the U.S. territory is the USG INC’s property and neither yours nor ours, you again also don’t have a right to trade it or share it. To derive your conclusion you have to imagine that the U.S. territory as a whole isn’t owned by anyone individually or collectively. If it’s to be coherent, the argument can not simply be that “this is bad because liberties are being blocked by the owners”, since ownership entails this right.

        You: “But governments aren’t people. They don’t have property rights. And even if we disagree on that point, I would hope we could agree that those governmental property rights only exist in subservience to the natural rights of the citizens under that government. I should hope my freedom of trade, to sell, contract, and hire, or simply visit with foreigners, would render our immigration laws illegitimate under this, frankly, generous rubric.”

        It’s strange that you would say that government’s, as such, can not own property. Do you also deny Corporate personhood? But I’m glad that we agree as to the conception of the USG. So where is the disagreement? You agree that federal land while legally owned by the government is really collectively owned by the citizens. So you must agree that in principle citizens acting collectively should be allowed to regulate who utilizes that. I imagine that we would also agree that e.g., public roads, schools, the libraries, federal buildings are also collectively owned and therefore that the same holds. The disagreement seems to come when we are dealing with your individual property. Let’s assume that you could invite a non-citizen onto your property without traversing or utilizing any public property, should anyone be allowed to say “no you can’t do this”? That’s an interesting question but, as far as I can tell, it’s presently a non-issue, since such a circumstance is very unlikely. Of course, it goes without saying, that granting citizenship and residency are public acts, and that doing so has an effect on all citizens and affects their collective property, so that neither of these could, in any propertrian system, be justly done on the individual level. But here we are simply talking about migration.

        To move forward, maybe you could clarify which points you agree with and which you don’t.

  2. “Let me ask you — what part of “immoral” don’t you understand?”

    I know that you think that you’re a modern day abolitionist. All international socialists do. Of course national self determination and border choice is immoral by this over-arching moral frame. That’s virtually a truism. Yet people have different moral systems. And many are reasonable. In one common one, a nation as a whole is allowed to control it’s national composition through immigration laws. Now, the important point here is that multiple moral-political systems can co-exist, so long as they are not hegemonic. A closed border national can exist alongside two open border ones and all of the members of the closed border nation that don’t care for the national policy can relocate. The idea of border choice is real obvious. It’s the golden mean between two extremist positions.

  3. @John, You try to use “trespassing” as an example, but that’s clearly not what is being discussed.

    How about an easier analogy? The house across the street from you is for sale. Someone from your state could purchase it. Someone from Maine, Florida, California, or anywhere in between could purchase it. So why shouldn’t someone from Mexico also be able to purchase it? What difference does it make?

    How are any of these people “trespassing”?

    In fact, if you just take a step back and look at how the United States operates then you’ll see how ridiculous it is to try to keep people “out”. Someone can move from one state to another without any issues. You don’t need to get permission from the government, if you live in Minnesota right now, you can move to Texas tomorrow, all you have to do is find a piece of property for sale or for rent, agree to pay for it, and that’s it. You are now a Texas resident.

    Minnesota is thousands of miles away from Texas too, a big culture shock for someone to move from one to the other! Now just think how absurd it is that someone from Mexico, just a few miles away, CANNOT do this. They can’t just decide “hey, I think I’d like to live in Texas now” and move there the next day. Why not? There is no logical or moral reason that they can’t, the only reason that they can’t is because of these ridiculous immigration laws that we have.

    And that’s why we should not have them.

    How can you possibly claim you are worried about Mexicans or Cubans “stealing your jobs” and whatnot if you are not at all concerned about people from Minnesota or North Carolina stealing the same jobs? People from all four places would be “foreigners” to your state, but two of them are okay and two are not? Why?

    1. “How about an easier analogy? The house across the street from you is for sale. Someone from your state could purchase it. Someone from Maine, Florida, California, or anywhere in between could purchase it. So why shouldn’t someone from Mexico also be able to purchase it? What difference does it make?”

      As I was saying to Josh, the road to get to the house across the street is owned by the government. But as Josh rightly noted, the government doesn’t, in a sense, really own it, the nationals in the country collectively do. So, to answer your question, the difference is between owners (and those they permit) crossing the property and non-owners (and the non-permitted) crossing it. This is standard international law and policy, so I don’t see where the disagreement lies. Note, I’ve never argued that certain countries can’t or shouldn’t grant open access to their territory. But simply that they aren’t obliged to. My problem is with forced open border zealotry, not border choice, especially when the former imagines that it’s somehow in the logical, philosophical, or moral right. As I’ve noted in the comment section of another post, as it is, thick-borders become more feasible when there are open border regions since there are then regions for open border advocates to relocate (or be relocated).

  4. lol I just clicked on your name and it took me to your facebook page.

    The irony of someone from Ohio who now lives in North Carolina not understanding why people should be able to move freely across borders… lol

    How would you have liked it if you had been told that you are not allowed to leave Ohio? That is basically what you are trying to tell others. You didn’t find success in your “homeland”, you’ve moved elsewhere probably looking for a “better life” and now you say others shouldn’t be able to. Typical…

    1. “The irony…How would you have liked it if you had been told that you are not allowed to leave Ohio? That is basically what you are trying to tell others. You didn’t find success in your “homeland”, you’ve moved elsewhere probably looking for a “better life” and now you say others shouldn’t be able to. Typical”

      When I relocated to Shanghai, that my employer needed to continually renew my work visa, didn’t bother me. When I was unable to gain entrance into North Korea, I was, while disappointed, not angry. Why? People have a right to self determination, to form nation-states, to control territory, to regulate citizenship, and to control their borders, to accrue collective i.e., national debt. This is an internationally recognized principle. I also think that people have a right to secession, though under what circumstances is difficult to decide. Thus I am fine with the possibility of South Carolina seceding and then barring me, as a Ohio-North Carolinian, from entrance. Since S.C. is still part of the U.S. and as such subsidized by everyone else in the U.S. I would not be fine with my being banned from the state. I would, though, be o.k. with Mexico or Canada prohibiting my entrance, Now, if we had a Unites States of the Globe which was — or the public domain of which was — collectively owned by all the citizens (which included everyone on the planet) I would agree that relocating from Ohio to N.C. would be, in a sense, little different from relocating from Ohio to P.R.C, and should be treated as such. But I also would be fine with part of this global state seceding, in which case we would be back to where we are. To be clearer, the between nation-state versus between nation subdivision (e.g., province) differences comes down to one of degree of collective ownership. Ohioans don’t own and control Hunan as much as they own and control North Carolina. On what points do you disagree. I’m probably not being clear enough.

  5. Basically, there is no difference at all between you moving from Ohio to North Carolina and someone else moving from, say, Mexico to North Carolina. Not one bit of difference at all.

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