Immigration is one of the prime issues of our time and has only been made more prominent by the humanitarian crisis of foreign children, many unaccompanied, pouring over our southern border in the last few years. I have been struck by the frankly ugly passions evoked by this crisis. My blogging colleague, Pied Type, recently posted on the matter and expressed outrage that the avowed undocumented Jose Vargas, a Pulitzer prizewinning journalist at the Washington Post, has been able to “flaunt” his illegal status for years without being shipped back to the Philippines, which is where he was before his parents brought him here at age 12. She feels he should be made an example of as a lesson to other lawbreakers.
The United States is a nation of laws and I too believe in enforcing those laws, but the fact that Vargas declared his illegal status in Time Magazine’s cover story two years ago and still hasn’t been prosecuted is symptomatic of the political divide over the issue. In general it seems that conservatives, even the George W. Bush compassionate kind, favor strict adherence to the law, regardless of mitigating circumstances such as whether a child has legal relatives here or, as in Vargas’ case, whether they have proved themselves to worthy and valuable citizens. Progressives generally seem to believe that such mitigation is proper. One thing I hope we can all agree on is that the immigration law as it stands needs serious revision. Such a revised law was passed in the Senate with a bipartisan 68 – 32 vote, but it has languished in the GOP controlled House where the leadership has refused to bring it up for a vote, ostensibly because its approval would be considered a Democrat victory.
I submit that it is facile to dismiss Vargas’ case as one of simple illegality. I consider myself a law-abiding citizen but in cases like this I believe the law can and should be bent on the side of national self-interest, if not humanity. Does that make me a criminal? I don’t think so. The laws of the land are always subject to interpretation, there has always been wiggle-room. Prosecutors have always had broad latitude in bringing charges, for example, and also to interpret those laws in novel ways, as they have in combatting organized crime. To do otherwise would be a mistake – laws don’t come down from God etched in stone tablets, but from lawmakers who are human and who often don’t even read everything their staffs add to the fine print. The law is a process, one that involves human beings (judges) and, well, judgement. (In researching this post I did come across an article that does mention prosecutorial discretion on the part of ICE in deportations, something I hadn’t known. Somebody on some congressional staff must have had a good day to think of that. The link is at the end of the post.)
Another example of reason over strict legality is, strangely enough, to be found in the organization and management of the United States’ military. While an enlisted person’s oath includes a promise to obey the orders of those appointed over them, an officer’s oath of office omits that expression and instead avows to “support and defend” the Constitution of the United States. Why the difference? It can only be that leaders are expected to place judgement, within context, above blind adherence to orders. In fact, one could make a good case that this nation was founded by a cadre of lawbreakers who placed principle above (King George’s) written word. One might also consider how many crimes agains humanity have been justified by the need to “follow orders”?
Jose Vargas is an immigration activist. He was detained when he visited the Texas border and was ordered to attend a future hearing on his citizenship status. It will be interesting to see if we will deport this exceptionally talented man who has never known another country since the age of 12. It seems stupid, but if the courts do, maybe it will help move the GOP in the House to do what’s right and pass an immigration reform bill. But if Vargas is deported, it ought not be a cause for celebration by any citizen. I personally will be embarrassed for our country.