Is illegal immigration really a crime?

By RiShawn Biddle

Expresso • May 3, 2006

A line echoed in the debate over illegal immigration by some, including Expresso reader and commenter Ryan Cooper, is that while undocumented workers deserve sympathy, their violation of America's laws by residing here is also not tolerable. After all, argues Ryan: "I'd rather have a society that benefits from respect of the law than one that benefits from corruption."

Certainly by respecting the rule of law, everyone guarantees that each of our rights and privileges will be respected by others. More importantly, the nation survives intact. At the same time, one wonders how does a nation benefit from respecting laws that are also immoral and unworkable? More importantly, how does one eliminate such laws without bringing attention to them -- and violating them in the process?

Think about it. Numerous movements to reform American politics and society, from the abolition of slavery to the Civil Rights movement to end Crow segregation during the 1950s and 1960s, couldn't have been achieved without violating the laws that sustained them. Rosa Parks' own stand against Jim Crow laws is considered admirable today, but she was also violating the laws of that time. Same for anyone sitting at a Whites-only lunch counter or using a Whites-only restroom in protest of segregation. Nat Turner is regarded as a martyr in the eyes of those who review the fight to end slavery that led to the Civil, yet his violent efforts were considered criminal in their time. And don't forget our Founding Fathers, who stood up for liberty -- and violated British law -- through acts such as the Boston Tea Party and the 1776 secession from the United Kingdom.

This reality isn't limited to American history alone. Nelson Mandela and others were imprisoned for violating the laws that kept South Africa under apartheid while a generation of Czech intellectuals such as Vaclav Havel endured prison for violating rules that perpetuated Communism in the former Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile the Cubans dissidents who battle against Fidel Castro's tyranny are also felons and worse in the eyes of the government under which they currently or once lived.

Good old fashioned nostalgia, which paints a false image of history as it never was, has a way of concealing that each person's heroic quest is another's felony. So does the reality that nothing has an inherent existence or naturally-endowed virtue: As with the turn-of-the-20th century British army who thought the clapping of Tibetans was a welcoming when the latter were actually doing so to ward them off as evil spirits, the average American arguing the "law is the law" position have a difficult time seeing illegal immigration as anything other than disrespect for the law.

For those of that mindset, consider the argument of the undocumented worker advocating for the right to become a taxpaying American citizen: Because he doesn't likely have relatives already living here as American citizens, doesn't possess a rare skill or have sponsorship from an employer in need of hard-to-find talents, American immigration laws block him from coming here and becoming a legal contributor to the nation's economy. Even if he met any of those requirements, depending on the type of quota involved, it may take him two decades before even getting permanent resident status, the first step to citizenship.

In what kind of condition in which he is residing back in his home country? The Mexican migrant has few job prospects and has access to only $62,000 in per-capita capital according to the World Bank and the Ethiopian has access to a shade under $2,000 in capital (compared to the $513,000 in per-capita capital for the average American). For the Iranian engineer, it's a life under tyranny. Either way, their lives aren't rosy and their futures don't look too bright.

So making the torturous trip to these shores with its comparatively boundless opportunities for a better life isn't such a bad idea. To be branded a criminal for doing what humans have done naturally for centuries -- migrate to places that can better sustain them -- suddenly seems a little ridiculous. Given that they're actually contributing to the improvement of this nation as both taxpayers and as residents, being rendered among those who actually take the life, liberty and property of others is downright unfair.

So are the undocumented and those overstaying their visas really violating American laws? More likely, American immigration laws, especially given their bigoted origins, are violating morality.