Is immigration enforcement more a crime than illegal immigration?


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

Rape, race, and Rockland: Why you shouldn’t believe the hype


The brown men are coming to take and rape our women. Did you hear?

Sorry if this opening is too snarky, but it’s difficult not to pour derision all over the age-old racist trope that we must protect white women from the dark hordes. This seems to be the most elemental of all the dumb racist fears, led to a fair number of lynchings back when lynchings were common, resulted in the murder of Emmett Till, and even formed the basis of one of America’s most-loved anti-racist novels.

Despite being thoroughly discredited, though, the trope — the fear by white men that somewhere, somehow, a brown man is having sex with a white woman — is durable. (We shouldn’t be surprised, I guess: Congress made clear in 1964 and 1965 that African Americans had the rights to vote and to public accommodations; it took a few more years after that for the Supreme Court to add that, yes, it was OK for men and women of different races to get married. That was years after Barack Obama, the product of a black-white relationship, had been born. We treat this like ancient history, but it just happened yesterday.)

I mention this because of James Jackson.

You’ve heard of him, right? He’s the racist who drove to New York last week and killed a black man … because he wanted to kill a black man. Any one would do.

And why did he desire this? The New York Daily News found out in a jailhouse interview.

Most chillingly, Jackson said he had traveled to New York from Baltimore intending to kill numerous black men, imagining that the bloodshed would deter white women from interracial relationships. “‘Well, if that guy feels so strongly about it, maybe I shouldn’t do it,’” he said, imagining how he wanted a white woman to think.

One almost has to admire the pathetic grandiosity of the candor here. Jackson wasn’t even trying to protect white women from the “dangers” of black men — he wanted to scare the white women away from even thinking about romance with a black man.

It’s only been two years since Dylan Roof massacred African American churchgoers for the same reason. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country — and you have to go,” he told victims as he mowed them down.

Maybe, Rebecca, some of our readers will suggest that these tropes are being revived only on the extremes, by the worst of the worst, by killers who might be too crazy to fairly count as being part of the discourse.

Except: The trope is working its way into our politics. It’s not totally explicit yet, but it’s getting there.

Remember, Donald Trump opened his campaign for the presidency with this jaw-dropper:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

It doesn’t matter that the numbers suggest immigrants have lower offense levels — Trump has kept this up through the first weeks of his presidency. The White House is creating an office specifically to deal with immigrant crime, specifically to hype and rile up the population against the brown hordes.

And just in case you didn’t get the clue, the Trumpist alt-right’s favored insult du jour is “cuck” — short for “cuckhold,” which is a term, that, well…

The cultural importance of the cuckold in America is rooted in racism: in pornography, the wife of the cuckolded (almost exclusively white) husband is most commonly sleeping with African-American men, meant to provide an additional layer of humiliation if the white husband sees that man as “inferior.” In the world of pornography meant to elicit humiliation as an erotic sentiment, cuckold porn takes advantage of its viewers’ racist perceptions.

All of which, unfortunately, brings us to this: A 14-year-old girl in Rockville, Maryland says two undocumented immigrants raped her earlier this month.

The story is horrifying.

Also horrifying: It’s become a national political football, a log thrown on the fire to help ensure  that we get our national blood good and boiling. It’s becoming a cause celebre in righty outposts like Fox News and Town Hall and Daily Caller and, of course, Breitbart.

My friends — yeah — at the Trumpista website American Greatness have published two posts about the matter in the last day. (Which is twice as much coverage as they gave to the failure of the GOP health bill.)

It’s hard to find a good way to respond to this. The public will hear RAPE!!!! and rational mewling responses of “that’s awful, but truly immigrants are convicted of crime less often than native-born whites” will go mostly unheard. Because this story is horrifying, and what? Do you care more about your precious “illegals” than the women in your life? Why don’t you hate rape enough? Guess you’re not an ally to feminists after all! It’s not, for the most part, a good-faith argument.

Me, I’m pretty sure can be a feminist ally and be cynical about the motives of people who otherwise don’t spend much time, interest or energy on rape prevention, except as a means of defending gun rights or criticizing campus feminists who rail against “rape culture.” The problem? Demagoguery has a better, easier, more enticing elevator pitch. It always does.

So. The Rockland story is awful. But the coverage appears to be attempting a narrative — THEY are coming for our women — that isn’t supported by the existence of one awful act. We should work to get the victim all the help and services she needs, all the community support that can be afforded her family. And we should still push back against people who cynically exploit her story to try to make the rest of us as afraid of brown men as they are.

— Joel

Reader Reaction: Race, white innocence, and Michael Eric Dyson

A libertarian friend writes:

I’m not buying your piece on race fully. What is a sufficient apology for those things you have no role in or control over? When you make a mistake, yes, own it. But what about those who have not made mistakes, and there are many, despite what you may think.

IOW, I don’t believe in collective guilt.

I responded:

We’ve talked about this before, and I’m not sure what to tell you: I think this remains a sharp philosophical difference between us.

I think there ought to be room for the libertarian ideal and acknowledgement this country doesn’t fully live it out. “Collective guilt” doesn’t strike me as precisely the right term, but it seems undeniable to me that A) this country has long benefitted white people at the expense of black people and b) even if you think those days are over, the legacy and ramifications live with us still.

For one example: There’s a profound disparity in wealth between whites and blacks — one magnified by the great recession. Why? Well, a good chunk of that is housing policy: Black neighborhoods were redlined, white neighborhoods weren’t, so the government ensured white people were able to buy homes, create equity and wealth, and build a buffer for themselves that they handed down to their children.

I’ve benefitted from that, as a legacy from parents who were able to help me through tough times. I bet you have benefitted from that, too. Does that make you “guilty” of something? Tough word. You’re probably heir to the picking of winners and losers, though, and you got the bright side of the deal.

Maybe you don’t agree with that, but it seems to me largely in keeping with a libertarian critique, one that doesn’t necessarily damage your overall outlook. “Government picking of winners and losers sucks” isn’t just a theory. We have evidence!

My friend adds:

What gets me is that, reading Dyson and Coates makes me want to ask: What about the adult kids of the Hungarian refugee who came to this country in the 1950s? How are they tainted with the sin of slavery? There’s very little acknowledgement of this in what I read of their work, and granted, I’m not that enthralled by it anyway.

It’s hard for me not to shrug a bit at this, on the one hand: Adult kids of Cold War refugees are probably a very small slice of the American community. The fact that they might be an exception to the general thrust of American history makes them exactly that: An exception.

In a less-shruggy vein, though, I do ask: Are our Hypothetical Hungarian Immigrants as likely as an African-American to be shot in a traffic stop? To be stopped-and-frisked? To be arrested for smoking a joint? White privilege isn’t just the accumulation of perks, after all: It’s also a free pass from the disadvantages that black folks are often subject to. That’s probably true even if you just got off the boat.


I don’t want to misrepresent my friend, who points out I omitted his comments that touch on some agreement between us. My apologies to him. Here’s part of what he additionally wrote:

Do the education, criminal-justice, and employment/housing systems treat “whites” and “others” differently? Sadly, yes, in fact if not in law. I would argue that the legal situation (as in statutes on the books) is much better than it was not so long ago. But people ultimately implement those laws, and far too often, they continue to demonstrate bigotry.
What to do about it?
IMO, blaming whitey for being whitey gets us nowhere. It may assuage some of the guilt of some people and will assuredly inflame the hostilities of others. Reviewing situations, case-by-case, and discussing responses that address the specific problem could ease some of the tensions, name-calling. And accomplish something. Maybe?
There’s a whole discussion here to be had about systemic evils versus individual trespasses. I don’t think it’s one or the other — though I agree with my friend that discussing the systemic problem does inflame hostilities. More later.

Race and “the velocity of history”


I hope you don’t mind if I take a small detour from questions of Christianity and politics to talk for a few moments about race.

This should be easy, eh?

As it happens, I’m currently reading “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America” by Michael Eric Dyson. It feels like a companion text to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ much-lauded “Between the World and Me,” except that earlier book — ultimately — was a conversation among black folks about being black folks, one that whites might get a chance to listen in on. Dyson’s book, as the subtitle suggests, is aimed squarely at us whites, a relentlessly hectoring “What the HELL are you going to do about this injustice!?!?” tome born of anger and love and faith.

Anyway, here’s a passage I read tonight and I want to share it with you.

“Even when individual black people confront individual white people, even when we love one another, white innocence still clouds our relationships. We are two historical forces meeting, and the velocity of that history is so strong that it can break the bonds of individual love.”

I’d like to talk about the “velocity of history” a bit.

Back when I was working in Philly, I played a part in committing what I can only characterize as a “racial error.” (That’s too cloying; put it more clearly: I fucked up.) I helped arrange a magazine cover featuring students at a local elementary school — and neglected to make sure any black students were in the picture.

The response was angry and loud. And I was … well, I was a lot of things. I had written within recent months about “white privilege,” but even my familiarity with the concept wasn’t enough to make me aware enough of my own blind spots.


I learned a lot of lessons from the affair, all of them painful. But one of the chief among them was this: When you commit a racial fuckup, that racial fuckup doesn’t exist in isolation. It bears the weight of every racial fuckup, microaggression, injustice and moral outrage that has accumulated in this country since, oh, 1620. (In the case of my particular error, it also bore the weight of my publication’s own history of getting race wrong.) It has its own mass and gravity, and once you’ve entered its orbit — well, prepare yourself.

Even writing about it a couple of years later is scary, because I’m afraid that somebody will read these words and think to themselves I think the moral of my story is: “Oh, poor white me.” That’s not the moral here. I fucked up. People were hurt by it, by my choices. I don’t get to un-own it or make it better by going on the defensive. Let me be clear on that point.

I became somewhat more sympathetic to conservatives who get angry, though, when you bring up race. They’re not the ones who perpetuated slavery or Jim Crow, after all, and they don’t like being implicated in our Great National Sin — they refuse to accept the burden.

But my sympathy — for them, for myself — doesn’t extend that far, and here’s why: White people are able to refuse to accept that burden. Black folks? Not so much. We see it in the vast wealth disparity between whites and blacks. We see it when the “Black Lives Matter” slogan is treated as evidence of racism instead of a pushback against racism. We see it when police apply methods to minority neighborhoods that whites would never allow for themselves. We see it when mainstream conservatives eagerly consume “scientific” proof for white superiority. While we who are white try desperately to unburden themselves,  and often believe we have succeeded, the truth is that for many minorities in America, the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.

“White fragility is a will to innocence that serves to bury the violence it sits on top of,” Dyson writes. I can’t deny it. I don’t even really know what to do with it, except to acknowledge it, to keep acknowledging it, to try and be better than that — and know, from the clear evidence, that sometimes I am not.

I talk about the weight of history. Dyson talks about velocity. You know what mass times velocity is, don’t you?


— Joel

What can non-Christians tell Christians like Erick Erickson about Christianity?

President Trump’s budget came out Thursday, with big increases to military spending and big cuts to pretty much all other discretionary spending. Lots of people raised a big stink, to which conservative Erick Erickson responded:

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So. Can Christians learn anything about Christianity from non-Christians?

I’d like to think so. Certainly, we can read the Bible as well as any Christian can, and if we who are atheist or agnostic or Jewish or Muslim can read those words, look at how Christians behave, and draw some conclusions about the sincerity or authenticity of that faith.

We can read, for example, Mathew 25:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

…and expect Christians to act accordingly.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s still plenty to argue about, I guess, regarding the “how” we feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Does that have to be a government program?

But understand: American Christians bring their religiously based moral understandings to bear on a whole bunch of government policy — especially as regards reproductive rights, but also a whole bunch of other stuff. If they want to hold society to their standards, it’s only fair that the rest of us try to hold them to their standards too, no?

Rod Dreher takes his ball and goes home


I’d like to talk a bit about Rod Dreher.

Do you know of him? He’s now a writer at The American Conservative, but I’ve been following his career for years — back when he was a Catholic pursuing the Catholic abuse story at a time when doing so was still a difficult thing to do (his angst was so great that he converted to the Eastern Orthodox church) and back when he was one of the first conservatives to break with the movement over the Iraq War. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always had an affinity for conservatives willing to stand apart from movement orthodoxy, and he fits the bill.

But it’s complicated.

I love Rod Dreher. I hate Rod Dreher. He’s essential reading. I sometimes have to turn off his RSS feed for weeks or months. He’s incredibly thoughtful. He’s a kneejerk reactionary. He’s terrified of the influence that gays will have on American society. He’s really good friends with Andrew Sullivan — who kind of helped kickstart the gay marriage movement decades ago. He’s profoundly human, but I wish he could be a bit more humane and less purely contemptuous of people who think differently than he does. I think there’s stuff we have to learn from him, and for God’s sake sometimes I wish he’d just shut the hell up.

There aren’t many writers who produce this kind of reaction with me, but there you go.

I mention him because he’s got a new book out, “The Benedict Option,” that’s probably worth our notice. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve read his blog over the years as he developed the ideas in the book, so I think I can fairly sum up the core idea.

  • American Christians no longer dominate American society like they used to — see the rise, and widespread acceptance of, gay marriage.
  • As a result, the religious liberty of American Christians is threatened — one small example being the whole wedding cakes issue — which, in turn, threatens their ability to freely live out their religious beliefs, which in turn threatens the survival of authentic faith in America.
  • So it’s time to start limiting participation in the broader culture, to cloister up into small Christian communities that limit interaction with and influence from the outside world, in order to be able to continue to live authentically Christian lives.  

Damon Linker distills Dreher down to this:

This means, specifically, that Christians need to turn inward, steeling themselves against the pernicious moral influences swirling around them by adopting a “rule for living” that turns their faith into the orienting focal point of their lives. Roughly half of Dreher’s book offers practical suggestions for how to live out this vision of deep piety amidst the ruins of Christian civilization: Attempt to live in proximity to like-minded Christians; pull children out of aggressively secular public schools; recover liturgical worship; tighten church discipline; devote family time to studying scripture; place strict limits on digital technology in the home; and so on. Only when a comprehensive form of Christian living has been recovered and instantiated in concrete communities will believers be equipped to begin the daunting task of attempting to win back the wider culture from the forces of secular nihilism.

And here’s Dreher giving his elevator pitch during an interview:

It is withdrawal for the sake of renewal. My book is heavily influenced by a 2004 essay in First Things written by the early-church historian Robert Louis Wilken. He said we in the West were losing our cultural memory of Christianity. Because of this, he said, there is nothing more important for Christians today than the church telling itself its own story, and nurturing its inner life. His point is not that we shouldn’t evangelize, but that we are forgetting what Christianity means. We cannot give the world what we do not have. Therefore, we have to withdraw in meaningful ways for the sake of contemplation and formation — this, so we can truly bring the light of Christ to the world.

And here’s one more good summary of the arguments involved. Also, Dreher’s Christianity Today cover story

Given that this is Dreher, I’m of two minds how to react.

I kicked off our conversation by asking, essentially, if Christianity was essentially a tribal exercise or a spiritual undertaking. Dreher’s answer to this seems to be: “Yes.” By which I mean: It seems that Christianity is for societal ordering, until it’s no longer in that position, after which it’s time to turn inward and focus on our souls.

Dreher, to be fair, would probably contest that characterization, and counter with the the idea that America being ordered along Christian lines has given individuals the room they need to focus on their souls — and that the shifts in society require an intentionality on the soul-cultivation front that maybe wasn’t quite as pressing.

Either way, here’s what’s frustrating: Society is no longer ordered to Dreher’s liking. So he’s taking his ball and going home. My instinct isn’t to like this.

On the other hand, there’s scriptural and traditional basis for Christians walking away from situations they consider unwelcoming. Here’s Matthew 10:

11Whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy and stay at his house until you move on. 12As you enter the house, greet its occupants. 13If the home is worthy, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14And if anyone will not welcome you or heed your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. 15Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

And what’s more: You and I are heir to and participants in the Mennonite tradition — a tradition that includes a lot of fleeing and cloistering. The Mennonites I grew up with in Central Kansas told their story as such: They started out in Germany, fled from there to Russia when they could no longer freely practice their pacifism, then from Russia to America when they could no longer freely practice their pacifism there. The older Mennonites where I grew up spoke a  “low German” dialect that signified some of this history. (They were still using it in worship services well into the 1950s.) Maybe I’m not in a good position to critique Dreher’s own sensibilities here.

So maybe my problem here with Dreher is that he sees gay liberation as a zero-sum game: If they get full rights, then conservative Christians will end up oppressed. I don’t like that idea very much at all.

Still waiting for my copy of the book, which may provoke more discussion yet.

— Joel

On foolishness


This concluding sentence from you blew me away:

“We have no models of Jesus scolding anyone for being too generous in their sacrifice, their love, or their hospitality—and plenty of models of grand and often dangerous gestures of generosity.”

Well said. Quite right! A mission statement, even!

And it was that particular turn of phrase — “often dangerous gestures” — that turned my mind to a bit of Scripture. Let’s pick up the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians:

“Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know Him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”

These verses don’t get talked a lot about in public these days, yet I suspect they do incredible damage to our discourse and politics.

See, I read Paul’s words as suggesting that the path of God can be counterintuitive — requiring your “often dangerous gestures” of generosity. But I think many Christians have interpreted this passage as … allowing them to embrace real, actual foolishness.

I’m thinking here of conservative attitudes on climate change. While it’s true that there’s a subset who take a faith-based foundation to defending the environment, the sad truth is that many American Christians (evangelicals, at least) have decided to accept Republican teaching on the matter, which amounts to: “Ignore all that science and scientists who tell you that human-made climate change is real and poses risks. It isn’t and doesn’t.” Why do American Christians buy into this? Well, many of them regard environmentalists as (literally) idolatrous nature lovers; some are just binding themselves to GOP tribalism — and a few figure the End Times are just around the corner, so screw it.

But: The Republican teaching is … foolish. There are lots of people — lots and lots of scientists — who say so. And I suspect this makes some conservative Christians cleave ever more closely to these ideas, because the “wise men” of the age are calling them foolish. That’s proof that they’ve taken the right position!

That’s obviously self-reinforcing. I’m not sure how one argues against that kind of logic. And it’s a logic that gets applied to all kinds of issues.

So. How to decide what’s really foolish? And what’s wisely foolish? How do we not end up chasing our tails on this whole damn thing?

Oh dear. I think I just went full Obi-Wan:

Rebecca, you offered a pretty good measuring stick the other day when you wrote this: “We can actually measure who Christianity is for by looking at who benefits from American Christianity. And that answer is pretty clear:  the same people who have always had power. American Christianity protects the status quo.”

I suspect that asking that question would help clarify the effort to distinguish real foolishness from God’s (wise) foolishness, assuming one isn’t trying to get to a predetermined conclusion.

Wait. How does this relate back to your “often dangerous gestures” comment?

Only this: I’m not so sure it’s God’s foolishness to believe and act the way that oil companies, as well as the politicians and think tanks they buy, want you to. If a senator says exactly what you believe on C-SPAN, there’s probably not much divinely counterintuitive going on.

I don’t think God’s foolishness requires believers to ignore mounds of evidence in favor of a proposition — that makes God a trickster, and every day a sort of “Opposite Day.” Instead, I think God’s foolishness requires one to consider and discard conventional wisdom, and that is much, much more difficult than merely taking the side of everybody else in your political party.

I think living God’s foolishness is legitimately, terrifyingly difficult.

Giving your coat when asked for it. That’s hard. Turning the other cheek when you’ve already been struck. That’s hard. Loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. That’s damn near impossible. Acting in God’s foolishness often requires putting something on the line — your life, maybe, or your reputation.

It requires “often dangerous gestures” of generosity.

— Joel

P.S. We’ve started off with some heavy questions and thinking, haven’t we? I promise, Rebecca, that we’ll do some lighter stuff. I want to talk about books and movies with you. And I want to elicit some thoughts from you, in the near future, about how to raise “aware” kids. We’ve got a lot of time and ground to cover. We’ll get to it all eventually!