"BUT, THEY VIOLATED OUR LAWS!" is a common, sometimes angry, response of many who oppose any legalization of illegal aliens who entered or stayed in our country in violation of our immigration laws. While I do not know for sure, it is an answer that perhaps makes many people feel good about themselves; that they are being righteous about upholding our laws. Perhaps responding this way makes them feel that they are good citizens, and consequently, feel a need to demand that others do the same. Although it is a legitimate answer of course, I, on the other hand, despite being an attorney who has studied and respects the law, intuitively, and for reasons that I have not always analyzed, never felt that way. I will attempt to articulate my position and defend it.
Yes, those who enter illegally commit a misdemeanor under Federal Law, punishable by up to 180 days in jail, a $250 fine or both. However, in our civilized criminal justice system, we normally do not, and should not, attach perpetual consequences to violations of law; instead, he who violates the law is usually assessed a penalty and then allowed to continue his life. For example, those who are caught speeding must pay a fine; they are not prohibited from driving forever. Even those who rob a bank may open a bank account after their release; for after they serve time, society does not prohibit them from ever again entering a bank. Contrary to this reasoning, those who enter our country or stay illegally seem to elicit from our righteous society a need for perpetual consequences for that transgression. Thus, despite the fact that some of those illegals may work productively in the U.S. for decades, may have a U.S. citizen spouse and children, may pay taxes and otherwise be responsible members of society, under today’s law, they will never be able to be legalized, despite the passage of decades and despite beneficial conduct. This appears to be somewhat harsh.
Those opposing immigration reform have convinced the public that any reform smacks of amnesty. But amnesty in most dictionaries is defined as "an exemption from punishment; a pardon granted to an individual, a pardon that obliterates all legal remembrance of the offense." Therefore, attaching adequate penalties to legalization should remove it from the ambit of amnesty, and makes it analogous to other legal violations for which the offender pays the prescribed debt to society and moves on. Reform is not amnesty.
Another concern is that reform rewards undocumented aliens for their illegal act. This is based on a presumption that reform means citizenship. But those who desire to become permanent residents and ultimately citizens can, and should, be required to qualify, just like anyone else, and must stand at the end of the line. The road to permanent resident status involves a process that sometimes takes decades. As long as there is fairness and preference for those who played by the rules, prior violations of immigration law should not permanently handicap someone from achieving a legal status.
Our immigration laws already waive prior violations in certain cases. For example, those who enter legally but overstay, are usually allowed to legalize their status if they have an immediate U.S. citizen relative, such as a spouse. Others who entered illegally, but had a petition pending before April 2001 are also allowed to become legal. Therefore, Congress already grants relief to some who violated our laws, depending on their date of application or their level of familial relations to U.S. citizens. Consequently, there is no moral absolute, as some may claim, to the issue of granting relief to those who have violated our immigration laws in the past. It is a matter of degree, and these same sometimes-forgiving laws can be expanded to cover other compelling humanitarian situations, without violating the sacred principle of our society’s respect for the law, as some may claim.
About 30% of those residing illegally in the U.S. are visa overstays. Before 1997, the laws were more liberal, allowing those who overstayed, or entered illegally, to be legalized in ways that are no longer available. Therefore, our nation includes many citizens who, either they or their ancestors, came in ways no different than those currently utilized by those whom we call “illegals”. Had today’s unforgiving laws always existed, many of us would not be here today.
There are many compelling reasons why someone may risk his life, leave his country and family behind and come to America illegally. Such a person might be fleeing persecution, famine, or other bad conditions; or they may need to better provide for their children. They may not have thought of their actions as a violation of U.S. law as much as an escape to find a better future for their families. Such individuals never had the chance to comply with U.S. law; for if they did, they would not be here today.
What is also important to consider is that a violation of immigration law is not necessarily indicative of a criminal personality. Illegal aliens range from someone seeking a better future for his children to a gang member here to traffic drugs. Therefore, the illegal status alone tells us nothing about that person’s morals, nor about his future actions or possible contribution to our society should he become legal. Surely, not all illegals are good people, but, with over 12 million of them here, and similar to our society at large, one cannot predict, when dealing with such large group, each individual member’s potential for criminal behavior.
The violation of entering and staying illegally should also be viewed in context of the economic environment. Illegal aliens do not force themselves on the millions of U.S. employers that hire them. Those employers represent and serve a huge percentage of our population. Our nation has provided, through our corporate and business needs, the incentive for those illegals to come and work here. This is an economic issue whereby those illegals have subsidized, and not in a small way, our life style. Our society shares the responsibility, in part, for the difficult situation that exists today, so we cannot fairly place the full blame for its existence only on the illegal aliens.
Finally, many of those who are here illegally were brought to this country with their parents when they were infants, toddlers, or minors. They know no other country but the U.S. and it is a shame that there is no relief for them under our current law. What results in many of these situations is the potential deportation of an illegal alien at young age by to a country that, for all intents and purposes, is foreign to them. Many of those who finish high school find that the world of higher education or work advancement is shut for them. This appears to be unjustly harsh for persons who never committed any violation themselves.
This article is not meant to promote or glorify violation of U.S. immigration laws. Ideally, everyone should obey the law. But, the world is not perfect. We all make mistakes and difficult conditions present human beings with difficult choices. As Americans, it is part of our value system to look at problems from various perspectives, including humanitarian ones, and not just legal ones. It is inhumane to lump tens of millions of illegal residents together and to deny them, forever, the right to sleep peacefully at night without the fear of immigration raids and deportation. That is an extremely harsh punishment for a human being, even if they happen to have had the misfortune of violating our immigration laws sometime in their past.