November 26, 2010


Is Illegal Immigration Moral?: Dimensions the debate too often ignores. (Victor Davis Hanson, 11/26/10, National Review)

[W]hat is often left out of the equation is the moral dimension of illegal immigration. We see the issue too often reduced to caricature, involving a noble, impoverished victim without much free will and subject to cosmic forces of sinister oppression. But everyone makes free choices that affect others. So ponder the ethics of a guest arriving in a host country knowingly contrary to its sovereign protocols and laws.

First, there is the larger effect on the sanctity of a legal system. If a guest ignores the law — and thereby often must keep breaking more laws — should citizens also have the right to similarly pick and choose which statutes they find worthy of honoring and which are too bothersome? Once it is deemed moral for the impoverished to cross a border without a passport, could not the same arguments of social justice be used for the poor of any status not to report earned income or even file a 1040 form? [...]

Third, consider the moral ramifications on legal immigration — the traditional great strength of the American nation. What are we to tell the legal immigrant from Oaxaca who got a green card at some cost and trouble, or who, once legally in the United States, went through the lengthy and expensive process of acquiring citizenship? Was he a dupe to follow our laws dutifully?

And given the current precedent, if a million soon-to-be-impoverished Greeks, 2 million refugee North Koreans, or 5 million starving Somalis were to enter the United States illegally and en masse, could anyone object to their unlawful entry and residence? If so, on what legal, practical, or moral grounds?

In point of fact, America has always been at its weakest when it enforced (or made noise about enforcing) legal immigration regimes--bringing on both the Great Depression and the recent Great Recession. Our great strength has been on most ostentatious display during those periods when immigration was open. This includes the period since the Reagan amnesty, when America was so rightly ashamed of its immigration quotas that we ignored the laws more or less completely.

The notion that immigration should be restricted was racist from the start and remains so today. Such restrictions are legal, not moral.

So consider Mr. Hanson's first point, about whether we are obligated to obey immoral laws simply because they are laws. We celebrate the Underground Railroad and consider one of the our lowest points as a nation to have been the Dred Scott decision. Yet on Mr. Hanson's logic he would have returned escaped slaves to the South. This would have been legally "right" but obviously repellent morally. Likewise, the fact that abortion is temporarily legal in America does not make it moral. The two--legality and morality--are more separable than he acknowledges.

Likewise, Mr. Hanson is correct that it is immoral to require some immigrants to jump through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops, but that is an argument against the legalistic regime, not a moral argument against immigration.

And as to that last point, while there is obviously a legalistic defense against helping impoverished refugees--and conceivably a practical one--there isn't a moral one. The North Korean and Somali cases are especially telling, because the American people bear considerable moral responsibility for the current state of those sorry peoples, having turned tail and run rather than finish off the wars we waged there by helping establish decent governance. The weight of the moral argument thus comes down in the side of our helping ameliorate the harm we've done, not ignoring it because helping might inconvenience us a bit.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 26, 2010 8:42 AM
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