Let’s get the biggest moral issue out of the way first. It’s un-American to deport law-abiding, undocumented young people who were raised as American kids after having been brought here by one or both law-breaking parents. We don’t constitutionally impose penalties on children for their parents’ wrongs.
But that’s a tiny fraction of the estimated 11-12 million undocumented aliens. Only about 0.1 million young “DREAM-ers,” less than 1 percent of all undocumented aliens, took advantage of President Obama’s unilateral version of the DREAM Act, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, in its first year, 2012-13. As the Republican House leadership conceded Jan. 30, that program should be congressionally confirmed. It’s the right thing to do.
But what’s the moral posture of the vast majority of undocumented aliens who came or stayed here unlawfully as adults, cutting ahead of the immigration line? That’s a tougher question that may depend on how much government, corporations and citizens have facilitated the undocumented aliens’ law-breaking.
If someone in charge of queue etiquette facilitates line-jumping, you’d feel more inclined to excuse the line-jumper. On the other hand, if the line-jumper just flaunts the rules despite precautions taken to protect the line’s integrity, you might feel less charitable.
How much are our federal and state governments, corporations and citizens complicit in illegal immigration? There’s no easy answer.
The federal government’s role is ambiguous. Although its enforcement has occasionally been lax, enforcement grew firmer after 9/11. The most-involved states have mixed records. Arizona and Texas strictly observe federal immigration law. California and New Mexico undermine it by issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented -- or are they now documented? -- aliens.
Individual employers display a range of attitudes. Some companies, “family” farmers and individuals get ready, cheaper labor by winking at immigration legalities. On the other hand, many citizens and businesses frown on that.
Meanwhile, undocumented aliens often commit felony identity fraud to evade deportation. Their offenses are usually not limited to sneaking over the border or overstaying their visas. For instance, they often get fraudulent Social Security cards, which, if accepted in any workplace, open paths to illicit eligibility for driver’s licenses everywhere, housing subsidies, etc.
Immigrants have long flocked to America. Most, though, came when our borders were comparatively open. The large new class of illegal immigrants presents a relatively fresh moral question. We offered amnesty in 1986 to 2.9 million undocumented aliens, but supposedly with the assurance that it wouldn’t happen again. Instead, illegal immigration accelerated.
Sure, it would be un-American to cultivate two classes, citizens versus an alien underclass. But that’s avoidable in various ways, including amnesty, deportation and other alternatives. Deportation may seem harsh if you view violations of federal and state immigration and identity laws as insignificant offenses. But is illegal presence really insignificant?
Undocumented aliens have higher unemployment rates than other groups, commit disproportionately more non-immigration-related crimes than American citizens, and lawfully rely on our free schools, heating assistance and other no-questions-asked handouts. For instance, we spend about $1 billion annually for hospitals to handle births of undocumented aliens’ babies. Incidentally, because those babies’ parents evade U.S. government jurisdiction, it’s questionable under the 14th Amendment whether those babies are birthright citizens.
As for gainfully employed undocumented aliens, their employment does contribute economically. Still, their presence tends to depress wage rates and opportunities for law-abiders in relevant labor markets.
Setting aside debatable issues of moral balance, there are practical considerations. If we granted amnesty, could any program be realistically limited to those here now?
Most undocumented aliens are Mexican. Zogby polled Mexicans in 2009, revealing that, if amnesty were available, 36 percent (39 million) would take advantage by moving to the U.S. Most of those polled predicted amnesty would increase illegal immigration.
Washington remains deadlocked on most such matters, but many generally seem to agree that we need a path to citizenship for law-abiding young people raised as Americans who were brought here illegally by their parent(s). If we agree, let’s now pass legislation addressing such concerns.
But the tougher job awaits. Agreeing how fairly to address the other 99 percent will be much harder.
David Oedel teaches constitutional law at Mercer University law school.