Is immigration enforcement more a crime than illegal immigration?

Rebecca:

I’ve got some traveling to do today and tomorrow, so not a lot of time to share this thought. But I want to say a few words about how the kind of enforcement we’re seeing against illegal immigration under the Trump Administration more closely resembles a crime than does the “crime” of illegal immigration.

A key feature of any crime worthy of the name, it seems to me, is that the act of committing it is clearly and negatively disruptive, either to an individual life — a person may be injured, killed, deprived of property or merely their sense of well-being — or to the community at large. (Indeed the disruption to an individual is seen as a disruption to the community: That’s why criminal prosecutions are carried out in the name of the state, rather than individual victims.)

Illegal immigration is a different kind of crime, because the negative disruption is, at best, debatable. Maybe undocumented migrants lower wages for everybody else, but maybe not — or at least maybe not so much. Maybe undocumented migrants commit crimes, but the numbers suggest crime rates are lower among migrants than among native-born people. There’s evidence that migrants tend to be more entrepreneurial than native-born folks; there’s evidence that the influx of migrants has kept some towns in, say, western Kansas from drying up and dying out completely.

In other words, there’s probably a mix of effects from illegal immigration — I tend to use the word to describe the issue, not individuals, because the “illegal” part is the point of the undocumentation — but one of them is this: Those migrants often become part of the community.

So. When you start getting heavy-handed efforts to enforce immigration law, and to deport undocumented migrants, what you get is:

• Attempts to deport people who are pillars of their community.

Attempts to deport people who are trying to comply, even belatedly, with immigration law.

Fear among immigrant communities about doing the normal stuff of life like going to work or church.

I’ve got a lot more examples than this, but you get the point: The enforcement of the law becomes the thing that disrupts the community.

Especially when you consider that the enforcement is also falling heavily on American citizens and other people who are here legally, because they — by virtue of skin color — become objects of suspicion. Immigration enforcement hurts American citizens!

My friends who want harder borders and bigger walls will no doubt respond that illegal immigration is, after all, illegal — that the disruptions to the community are caused, foundationally, by the initial transgression of immigration. OK.

But it’s worth pointing out that illegal immigration is a somewhat arbitrary crime. We know instinctively if somebody’s committed a crime when robbery or a murder or an assault takes place; these crimes have been understood and punished throughout the history of humanity. Immigration? There’s a lot of legislative negotiating that goes into deciding where the lines are drawn. Illegal immigration isn’t a crime because the conscience is shocked by it so much as it’s a crime because a committee somewhere decided that it is. (This is the kind of thing that conservatives are usually against, by the way.)

All of which leads me, again, to believe that some immigration enforcement is much more a “crime” in the traditional sense than is illegal immigration.

But maybe I’m just rationalizing?

— Joel

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