Chun: Just Immigration

In defying unjust laws, illegal immigration is fundamentally American. ​

by Steven Chun | 9/19/17 1:00am

They broke the law — plain and simple. It’s the common thread that runs through every argument directed at the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Even the phrase “undocumented immigrant” seems to irk conservative Americans, who more commonly prefer “illegal alien” as well as the crude shorthand: “illegal.” As if breaking a law in a broken system is all that defines a family seeking a better life. But I digress.

Undocumented immigrants undoubtedly break the legal code of the United States. To millions of Americans, anything that comes after is moot. The law is the law.

But our current immigration system is a wasteland of backlogs and waiting times in the order of decades. In defying this broken and often cruel system, undocumented immigrants accomplish something wholly American: They defy unjust laws in a way that benefits the nation.

It’s important to ask whether any government can rightfully and morally exclude any human being from its public lands. The comparison of a nation’s land to private property is a false equivalence; a country’s peoples do not own their public institutions like they own their lawn. In the United States, we view it as plainly evident that the government shouldn’t ban anyone from the town square or the streets based on their race, religion or sexual orientation. It follows that where someone was born is an equally unjust condition on which to exclude; our ethics dictates that we have no right to stop or hinder anyone from becoming an American. Our immigration system is exactly this: a barrier and a hindrance. Thus, we cannot fault undocumented immigrants for bypassing a barrier we had little right to erect.

Of course, there are certain realities that stop us from adhering strictly to this philosophy. For a modern nation-state to stay secure, it requires some formal process of allowing foreigners into our country, but this process is convoluted and sluggish at the expense of all. Last year, the U.S. issued roughly 625,000 immigration visas, yet for the coming year the global waitlist sits at over 4.3 million. For countries like the Philippines and Mexico, even people with family members in the U.S. may have to wait for more than 24 years.

And yet, President Donald Trump has made the morally nauseating decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and to support a bill that would cut legal immigration by half. An article from the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, wonders aloud at the decision, noting, “economists strongly agree that the average U.S. citizen would be better off if a larger number of highly educated foreign workers were legally allowed to immigrate to the U.S. each year” and “a demographic-driven slowdown in U.S. labor force growth means real GDP growth is likely to be slower in the future than in the past” — a slowdown that immigration, both legal and illegal, greatly ameliorates.

There are other facts that anti-immigration hardliners seem to ignore: More people emigrate from the U.S. to Mexico than immigrate in the other direction; illegal immigration is a highly efficient economic instrument, rising when the U.S. economy needs labor and slowing when it doesn’t (unlike legal immigration); and roughly two-thirds of unauthorized immigrants simply flew in and overstayed their visa. It’s important to do away with incorrect images of illegal immigrants that demonize them and instead remember that illegal immigrants neither overcrowd the country nor harm its economy. In fact, illegal immigrants pay $13 billion in payroll taxes into Social Security, a system from which they will likely never benefit from.

Our nation of immigrants, by immigrants, is defined by welcoming outsiders. Our laws, often misguided and antiquated, do not always act justly and moral nor do they, as is plainly evident, always act in the interest of the people. Between the moral and economic imperatives, one cannot say our immigration system is just or enriching for current citizens.

To define undocumented immigrants as “illegals” put thems in the same category as those who hurled tea into Boston Harbor and those who marched for civil rights. The defiance of laws we find untenable is fundamentally American.

Yes, undocumented immigrants have broken the law. They’ve broken laws in ways that benefit the average American and run true to the moral foundations of our country. Those who take issue with illegal immigration may be driven by a strong sense of right and wrong associated with the law, but to anyone who feels that way I urge you to reconsider whether the law was really ever just or fair in the first place.