Proponents of immigration restrictions, and especially of the so-called “Minutemen” who police against “illegal” immigrants, often make the following argument:
Whether current levels of immigration are good or not, the fact is that many immigrants are in the United States illegally – that is, without the permission of the government. Breaking laws is wrong. Therefore, anyone in the U.S. illegally is a wrongdoer and should return to his own country. If he then applies for and receives permission to enter the U.S. legally, then he’ll be welcome.
Minutemen help government enforce laws on the books; therefore, they should be applauded.
(The wording above is mine, but if you survey much of the anti-immigration, pro-"Minuteman" literature — including some of the comments on this blog-post — you’ll find it, I believe, to be a fair rendition of a much-used argument.)
This argument is weak.
First, it fails to appreciate the fact that unjust laws deserve to be broken, or at least don’t deserve to be obeyed. Wasn’t it noble to violate the fugitive-slave laws and Jim Crow legislation? (I understand, of course, that there’s some danger in a decentralized system for deciding which laws are worthy of respect and which laws aren’t. But there’s also danger in a centralized system for declaring which laws should be obeyed.) My moral sense is that politicians, bureaucrats, and “Minutemen” have no business telling me which peaceful persons I can befriend or make love to in my own home or hire in my own factory. My moral sense tells me also that foreigners are not morally obliged to obey American politicians who would keep them from engaging in consensual capitalist acts on these shores.
Second, the “if-government-says-it,-we-must-obey-it” mindset does not support “Minutemen” interventions. Government determines “law” not merely by what it says (usually in the form of statutory language), but also by what it does. If government chooses to devote an amount of resources to “immigration control” that is inadequate to prevent substantial amounts of illegal immigration, shouldn’t we – by the “Minutemen’s” own logic – respect this government decision and not interpose our own opinions about what the level of immigration enforcement “should” be? Who are we, mere private citizens, to dare to second-guess with our actions a decision on the level of immigration control made by our leaders? Aren’t the “Minutemen” breaking the law just as illegitimately as are persons who come to America without formal approval of our leaders?
Just because words are written on paper and subjected to hocus-pocus beneath a soaring marble dome does not mean that these words are truly “law,” or even that the government officials who wrote and voted for them want them to be taken literally.
I believe that several states still have on the books “laws” declaring sex outside of wedlock to be a criminal offense. How many of us would applaud a private group calling themselves “Bedroom-men” snooping around our residences trying to prevent unmarried adults from having consensual sex with each other? Would we excuse the “Bedroom-men” by saying “Well, like it or not, because Dick and Jane aren’t married to each other, it’s unlawful for them to make love to each other. The law’s the law, and the Bedroom-men are just assisting government in upholding the law.”
How many of us would respect the Bedroom-men? How many of us would believe that the members of such a group have no selfish, unsavory reasons for doing what they do? How many of us would wish that any unmarried adults consenting to have sex with each other be jailed or fined simply because some statute book declares their behavior to be “unlawful”?