Immigration: Things Change, Things Remain the Same

One of the landmark Supreme Court cases in the area of statutory interpretation is Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States.  In this case from 1892, the justices decided that an immigration bill aimed at slowing the influx of foreign laborers was not meant to apply to Christian ministers despite the fact that the language of the bill applied clearly to everyone.  It is a rare case because the plain language of the legislation was overridden by judicial interpretation.

Within the case, I found this passage:

“It had become the practice for large capitalists in this country to contract with their agents abroad for the shipment of great numbers of an ignorant and servile class of foreign laborers, under contracts by which the employer agreed, upon the one hand, to prepay their passage, while, upon the other hand, the laborers, agreed to work after their arrival for a certain time at a low rate of wages. The effect was to break down the labor market, and to reduce other laborers engaged in like occupations to the level of the assisted immigrant.  The evil finally became so flagrant that an appeal was made to Congress for relief by the passage of the act in question, the design of which was to raise the standard of foreign immigrants, and to discountenance the migration of those who had not sufficient means in their own hands, or those of their friends, to pay their passage.”  Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (143 U.S. 457 (1892))

I don’t think it’s a surprise that immigration and cheap labor have always been a concern in this country and remain one today.  In this case, legislators were worried about a flood of immigration that had a dramatic influence on the nation’s growing economy.  It is interesting but not shocking that the court arbitrarily distinguished ministers from laborers.  Though this case is a rarity and standout in the Supreme Court’s history, it does point to a lesson that can inform our discussion today – policy is made and applied in the real world.  This is one thing I think that the legislature in Arizona either did not consider or willingly disregarded.  Either way, the law is not applied in a vacuum.  It is applied by fallible people in a complex world.

It is irresponsible to pass a law that only works if it is applied perfectly, consistently, and objectively.  Lawmakers must always remember that the law needs to be able to adapt and apply fairly no matter who is making the decisions or enforcing it.

Immigration in the United States in 1892 or 2010 is a complex and sensitive issue.  On one hand, there is the broad, high-level policy issue related to deciding how this country will deal with illegal immigration moving forward.  On the other hand, there is the day-to-day operation of enforcing the law as they are currently written.  Obviously one of the biggest concerns vocalized in the wake of Arizona’s policy shift is the unnecessary harassment of legitimate American citizens.  It goes without saying that I would not support anything that infringes or impedes on any American citizen’s civil rights or liberties. But it felt like underlying the arguments against the bill was an ulterior motive by those trying to influence how the country deals with illegal aliens broadly.  As if Arizona’s bill somehow invalidated the claims of anyone supporting for stricter laws or stronger enforcement.  While I think the bill was an overreaction and definite miscalculation, I do not think it accurately represents the positions of those opposed to amnesty (for example).

I have two problems in trying to articulate my thoughts here – first, I’m not sure I fully understand what the country’s options are in this debate and second, I can’t get past the illegal part.

I’ve been ticketed for speeding.  When I got caught, I didn’t try to say that I shouldn’t be given a ticket simply because  “everyone else was speeding” or “it’s not that big a deal.”  Likewise, I’ve thought of comparisons here to underage drinking on college campuses.  When a party or bar gets busted for underage drinking or a student gets caught with a fake I.D., it is still illegal.  Friends and even some parents can rationalize these activities with a “kids will be kids” or “at least my kid isn’t getting into anything worse” mentality.  But they still get in trouble.

This reasoning probably makes me a “boy scout” but any Pickle readers who know me probably aren’t that surprised by an admission like that.  I’ve never liked the mentality, sure it’s illegal but it’s no big deal. So, who cares?  Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not implying that I always follow the letter of the law in every aspect of my life.  I’m just saying that I’ve never expected not to get in trouble should I get caught.

With illegal immigration today, we might not all agree with the national laws as they are written.  Some people might be working to change these laws.  I have no problem with this.  I encourage a national debate and conversation on the topic so that we can decide as a country how we’re going to handle this topic.  What are our values? Our priorities? But that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve got to continue to enforce the law against people who decide that immigration laws don’t apply to them.  It’s almost like some are implying that we shouldn’t enforce the law because it’s sad or painful to do so.

I understand we’re talking about people’s lives here.  That’s why this issue is so important and sensitive.  But right now, there seems to be an attitude which is “if you can get here, you have an inherent right to all the rights of an American citizen.”  My question is, why can’t people naturalize legally?  Is there some way we can fix that process to incentivize people to come here safely and legally rather than sneaking around illegally?

So, what are the options?

Full amnesty seems a bit strange.  Simply solve the problem by not addressing it and reward an initial wrong by just declaring it right.  Likewise, it doesn’t appropriately address the problem by building a wall, closing the border and rejecting any attempt at citizenship.  So we are left with a messy, gray area in the middle.  Here, we’ll have to decide what’s most important to us – security, jobs, economic impact, the role of undocumented workers, the healthcare implications – and try to address these in the best way we know how.  Public policy.  Trial and error.  It won’t be prefect. It rarely is, but we keep trying and we eventually compromise on some things, hold fast on others and address as many concerns as we can.   Maybe over 100 years from now, someone will be reading the 2010 Arizona bill in law school and nothing will have changed, but I sure hope not.

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