Law Abiding and Illegal

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>As promised, here is post #2:

Reflections on Immigration: the “Law Abiding” and the “Illegal”

My previous post on immigration was an attempt to argue that the Church cannot reflect faithfully on this issue without reflecting on baptism and identity. While I am convinced this is true, I also want to offer some more general reflections on the “illegal” aspect of immigration since this is often the crux of the issue for many.

There are at least two aspects of this issue that I believe deserve some careful and serious probing: 1) Opposition to the current migration (particularly Latinos from Mexico, Central America, and South America) is largely galvanized around legal status or lack thereof and 2) A question: Are these categorizations of legality free of guile or are they disingenuous given other behaviors and activities that also constitute breaking the law by those that society would readily consider “law abiding?”

1) I am becoming more and more convinced that current opposition to new immigrants in this country is largely based on their “illegal” status. No one seems to be attacking the U.S. naturalization process, the legal migrants who come for specific periods of time, or the various temporary work visas or other ways people can legally live, tour, and work in the U.S. For the most part, the recent controversy about immigration has been about “illegal immigration.”

I am further convinced that many of the related issues, though important, are not the crux of the issue. Sure, people are concerned about the rising costs of health care, the incredible influx of students into the public school system and the other fiscal challenges that arise with a large migration of people to the U.S. Such things are clearly concerns that can and should be addressed. But lets assume for a moment that all these concerns could be dealt with in a way that would be mutually satisfying for everyone … a big assumption, yes, but hang with me for the sake of the argument. In such a scenario, I am still convinced that the issue would not go away because the heart of the matter is illegitimacy – people coming here under false pretenses, people who have no regard for authority, people who consciously and willingly defy the law of the land. We have a name for such people – “illegal.”

2) If my assumption is correct, this new category that we currently use to describe a whole group of people deserves further reflection. What makes a person “illegal?” What makes a person “law-abiding?” It is interesting to note that both terms are adjectives not nouns, with one telling exception: when illegal refers to “illegal immigrant” it is used as a noun. That information alone raises questions. Why this exception? Has a term that was normally used to describe certain activities or behaviors been carelessly elevated to a term that can convey ontological status on another human being?

It is one thing to say a person has engaged or continues to engage in illegal activity. It is quite another to say a person IS illegal in their very being. At least for Christians, such labeling should give us pause. If you want to find a noun that deals with such things more faithfully, than use the common parlance of the Church: sinner (a noun, by the way). You will find it applies to everyone, regardless of their legal status.

But let me probe a little further. What does it mean to be “law-abiding?” Is there anyone reading this post who is always in complete compliance with all the known “laws of the land?” If so, I would submit that you are a rare person indeed: a person who has never sped, never jay-walked, never violated an old building code with a quick repair that needed a permit, never engaged in any marital activity that violates many state sodomy laws. The list could go on to make sure everyone is equally implicated, but hopefully you get the point. Does such activity place you among those who are “illegal?” Why not?

Take speeding. This is a law that is variously interpreted, both by individuals and by different states. Some states have speeding laws that are called “absolute,” which means that any speed exceeding posted limits is illegal. Even though the law is clear in these “absolute” states, enforcement varies greatly and often includes certain allowable excesses as long as the witnessing officer considers such driving “safe” and not “reckless.” Other states (Rhode Island, Texas, and Utah) have a prima facie law (Latin for “at first view” or “on first appearance”) that allows for speeders to contend with the law in court if they can give evidence that their speeding was “safe.” In both cases a good deal of subjective interpretation is at work.

What is even more interesting is the legal purchase and sale of radar detection equipment in the U.S. It defies logic, but there are still some states that consider sale and purchase of such equipment “legal,” despite the fact that there is virtually no other purpose for such technology than aiding and abetting people in breaking the law. Why is there no public outcry at such blatant lawlessness? Why do we nod and wink at some laws and beat people up with others? Who decides which laws are flexible, which laws are irrelevant, which laws demand complete compliance, and which laws are open to interpretation? Should there not be some consistency in how we think about these matters?

As always, I have more questions than answers, but I do think these are some of the questions worth throwing into the discussion. A quick look at past “laws of the land” in U.S. history would readily demonstrate how often laws have been changed, modified, ignored, or rewritten for a variety of reasons. The Civil Rights movement defied laws that they considered unjust and called it “civil disobedience.” Married couples have long ignored old sodomy laws and considered them “irrelevant.” Abolitionists openly defied slavery laws by citing allegiance to a “higher law.” Others find certain laws less than helpful, and work with Congress and politicians to improve, change, or abolish them.

I say all of this merely to point out that reference to “legality,” particularly when referring to immigration, is by no means the end of the discussion. There are a lot of things about our current laws that need to be examined, reexamined, and discussed. Some aspects are clearly unjust; some clearly discriminate against some people and nations and favor others; some make no sense given current realities. In the midst of this highly contested issue, the Church can and should be a place to reflect more deeply than the media sound bites that promote division and ignorance. We could start by rejecting the superficial labels that separate “us” (law-abiding) from “them” (illegal).

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