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The Thorny Issue of Illegal Immigration and the Rule of Law

The case for exempting certain kinds of illegal immigrants from being deported

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In National Review Online, Mark Krikorian, the outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, comments on the case of a talented newspaper journalist who recently wrote an article acknowledging that he is in the United States illegally:

Jose Antonio Vargas has had his fraudulently acquired Washington State driver's license cancelled -- so far the only legal consequence of his revelation that he's here illegally. Interestingly, Peter Perl, the head of personnel for the Washington Post who covered up Vargas's illegal status for five years, told an interviewer that he's suffered no consequences and has no regrets. So, let me get this straight -- there are some crimes that the Washington Post disapproves of, like, say, breaking into a riverfront hotel/office complex and then covering it up, whereas others, like harboring an illegal alien, document fraud, perjury, and false claims of U.S. citizenship committed by their own employees, are okay. Good to know.

If it is hypocrisy to assert that some lawbreaking warrants disapproval, and to believe that other lawbreaking doesn't, I am guilty of it, both personally and journalistically. If I discovered that people working on behalf of President Obama were breaking into Mitt Romney's campaign offices, for example, I'd expose them. But if I discovered that a fellow citizen was smoking marijuana in his basement, or illegally mailing alcohol across state lines, or adding a recording studio to the family garage without getting a permit from the city, or canoeing across the lake without a life jacket?

I'd hope they'd get away with it.

Illegal immigration and the rule of law are complicated matters. If it were up to me, the United States would permit more people to come here legally, as we did for decades on end when we were a much poorer country, and the cultural differences between immigrants and citizens were more pronounced than they are in today's globalized world. I must concede, however, that my fellow citizens don't share my point of view, and that a polity has the legal right to enact immigration restrictions. I am all for deporting illegal immigrants who commit crimes that harm people, and although I wish workplace enforcement was unnecessary I don't object to it happening.

Insofar as immigration restrictions strike me as wrongheaded and unjust, however, I am under no obligation to disapprove of or expose violators. And our immigration laws are at their most obviously unjust when they exclude from this country people who entered the U.S. illegally as children through no fault of their own, came of age without even realizing their illegal status, and were one day forced to either leave the only home they'd ever known, or else lie in order to get a job. In their position, I'd lie, and I am skeptical of anyone who says that they'd do otherwise.

On right-leaning blogs, there's been a spate of items in recent days about children starting lemonade stands, and having them shut down by local police for lack of a permit. Absurd, right?

Advocates of shutting those lemonade stands argue that municipalities are legally permitted to regulate commerce within their jurisdictions, that the lemonade stands are running afoul of duly enacted rules, and that the rule of law demands that they be enforced. The most persuasive response: the rule of law is undermined by selective enforcement, but it is also undermined by having rules on the books that strike a large percentage of law abiding people as needless and unjust when enforced.

My preference, when it comes to lemonade stands, is for better laws, and in the meantime, I am rooting for kids all over America to get away with breaking the law. When it comes to illegal immigrants brought here as children, who've lived law abiding lives and contributed to the only society in which they've ever felt a part, I feel the same way. Jose Antonio Vargas hasn't caused anyone in America any harm. In fact, our nation has benefited from having him as a resident.

If an advocate of municipal business licensing wanted to strengthen support for such laws and their strict enforcement, they'd further their cause by carving out exceptions for kids with lemonade stands, and ending the parade of newspaper stories that cause Americans of all ideological stripes to say, "What the hell is wrong with this country, that the police are shutting down lemonade stands." In just the same way, Krikorian and other restrictionists would strengthen their position by refining the law in a way that showed mercy to certain classes of illegal immigrants. Doing so wouldn't weaken the rule of law. It would strengthen it by making the law less absurd.

Image credit: Reuters


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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