Last week, ICE agents arrested five undocumented immigrants who, at the urging of the government, had come to appointments at the Lawrence, Massachusetts’ US Citizenship and Immigration Services office to seek a way to stay in the country legally.
The case seems to me to exactly illustrate your point: that a crime ought to be something that disrupts the life of individuals and, by extension, the communities in which they are embedded but that the “crime” of being in the US without proper documentation is anything but disruptive. Undocumented immigration builds America (literally, in the form of construction workers and roofers. It also feeds America.). The real crime—in the sense of a disruption of individual lives and communities—is, then, in the aggressive deportations that began under President Obama and have taken an even nastier turn under Donald Trump’s administration.
You focus on the fact that such activity undermines community, is racist, targets those seeking to comply (as in the Lawrence, Massachusetts case), cultivates fear of police (which in turn undermines police-community relations and leaves everyone more vulnerable to real crime), and harasses people who are here legally (including native-born Americans of “suspicious” skin tones and last names).
Perhaps a person could argue that those are risks we should be willing to take or costs we should be willing to pay (Very easy to say when you are so solidly white that you’ll never be asked to show proof of legal residency on an internal flight!) in order to crack down on the crime of illegal immigration.
But, actually, simply being here without proper documentation is a violation of the law punishable by civil, not criminal, penalties. Improper entry—coming into the US when you don’t have the proper authority to do so (swimming the Rio Grande, scaling the stupid wall we already have)—is a criminal offense punishable by up to 6 months in a jail and a small fine. To be found guilty of improper entry, the state has to show evidence beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt that you entered improperly—just like with other crimes. Unlawful presence is also a violation of federal law—but it’s a civil offense, not a criminal one. When Americans travel abroad and overstay their visas, we often address this with a bribe.* When visitors to the US are not presently here lawfully, we can deport them—but that doesn’t make them criminals.
Above, detainees in the Florence, Arizona detention center, awaiting deportation. We waste human potential as people languish in such centers. Photo from Open Society Foundations.
So, why do we want to make people who are here without documentation into criminals? If they entered improperly, why go to the hassle of arrest if they aren’t hurting anyone? (If they are hurting anyone, that’s a different story.) And if they didn’t enter improperly but simply overstayed their legal welcome, they aren’t criminals at all—yet we seem to be eager to treat them (that is, when they are not white) that way. Why do we want to disrupt their lives and their communities? And why do we want to do it to people who are, by and large, good to have around? What does that say about us?
This seems to me to similar to another contested, difficult issue to talk about: abortion.
Lots of us oppose legalized abortion. We hate it! We say it’s a contemporary Holocaust. We think the doctors who perform abortions are detestable, taking advantage of poor, scared women. And we think those poor scared women are monsters, too. (Yes, we think both of these things, depending on our mood at the moment and the audience we are trying to convince.) We vote on the issue of abortion alone. We picket. We protest. We might even harass nurses and bomb clinics and shoot doctors.
But we all benefit from abortion. (This is not to say that abortion doesn’t also have its costs. And those costs could outweigh the benefits. But we all benefit as well.) It sounds crass (and maybe it isn’t kind to call it a “benefit”) but fewer poor women have babies now than in the past, thanks in part to abortion. Those children who are born to poor women have fewer siblings, which means less competition for resources and better outcomes for them. And that means less of a tax burden to everyone.
Now, to be clear: I don’t see poor children as a problem; I see poverty as a problem. And I’d love to see every poor woman no longer be poor and for her to have as many babies as she likes and for none of them to be poor, and we could do it, too, if we wanted that.
But lots of us don’t want it. We don’t want abortion, but we would rather have abortion—and its benefits—than to pay for the costs of not having it (comprehensive sex ed, affordable and reliable birth control, prenatal care and maternity coverage, parental leave policies, equal pay—you know, the policies that are actually pro-family and that every “pro-family” Republican opposes).
So we want two things: to hate abortion and to have its benefits, to hate abortion but to never do the work to make every pregnancy a welcomed one.
What we do instead is to hate women who have abortions. It lets us discharge our responsibility to be morally outraged without taking up any responsibility for the reasons why women have abortions (overwhelmingly, economics and failure of a partner to support them, which, in itself, has a lot to do with economics). I can call women entering an abortion clinic bad names and vote to repeal prenatal health coverage benefits. I get to do the second because I’ve fulfilled my duty to stopping abortion by doing the first. It’s so easy and so cheap!
I think we have a similar case with “illegal” immigration—which is what we mean when we lump improper entry (the criminal act) with unlawful presence (the civil offense). We don’t actually want illegal immigration to stop or undocumented immigrants to be deported. We might claim we do, but we don’t want to pay the costs (the logistics of removing 5% of the population, the hit to our international reputation, the extraordinarily expensive even stupider new border wall, the federal land grab that’s going to be required to build that wall, etc.), and we really don’t want to lose the benefits (the tremendous amount of tax money undocumented workers infuse into social security, the cheap tomatoes and meat on the $1 menu at McDonalds). And—white people, let’s get real!—many of us don’t want the labor shortage that would require us to stop locking up black men because we would need them back in the fields. But, by God, we still want to rail about “illegals” and how people have to have respect for the law and a nation must protect its borders if it is to be a nation!
Just as politicians vote against abortion knowing it’s safely legalized and that they’ll keep getting its benefits and against the policies that would make unplanned pregnancies avoidable or help transform them into wanted pregnancies, our politicians vote against illegal immigrants, knowing that if you jail five of them, 11 million more will still pick your crops and fund your social security.
Joel, you suggested that arresting undocumented immigrants disrupts communities, and it does—but it also consolidates white power (because we are only ever talking about immigrants of color and because white people do not want to unlock prisons full of black men) and an economic system that benefits a lot of us. (I like a cheap tomato, too! I want to pay 99 cents for a pound of strawberries! I can’t look upward to see the source of my problem–let’s just call it “neoliberalism”–so I look down and see “Mexicans are taking jobs from Americans”). Many white Americans find that terrorizing a few undocumented immigrants–or brown-skinned Americans who kinda look like they might be–is a fair trade.
*Does not constitute legal advice. But if you’re going to consider it, practice in the native language before you go.