A Blog of the Global Justice Movement

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Immigration and Social Justice


Just for a change of pace, we decided to look at a different issue today: immigration.  This is a hot topic, particularly in light of the fact that no one seems to disagree that there should be some form of amnesty for illegal immigrants — which raises some interesting questions regarding how our society punishes those who obey the law and rewards those who break it.

The problem here is that more than one issue is involved. There is whether a country has the right to limit immigration, what social justice demands, and what to do when someone breaks a law in a way that ostensibly harms no one, possibly even benefits society and other individuals.

The Catholic Church teaches that a country has the right to limit immigration. This should not be arbitrary, but “arbitrary” sometimes depends on which side you’re on. What social justice demands in cases in which you believe a law to be unjust that does not force you to do what is clearly objectively evil is organize with others to change — not break — the law.

That’s an important distinction. What social justice demands is not that you organize to break an unjust law, but that you organize to get the law changed “through channels.” The tactic of using “test cases” to get a law changed by challenging it in the courts has grown increasingly effective since the mushrooming of judicial review far beyond anything intended by the framers of the Constitution, but that doesn’t make it right — it’s how Roe v. Wade became the “law of the land” (and, BTW, is flawed both procedurally and substantively under the Constitution).

Should illegal immigrants be prosecuted and/or deported? On the one hand, to mention just one issue, they provide a significant portion of the labor force; many menial and unskilled jobs would go unfilled without them. On the other, they have broken the law. It appears that in most cases this is without malice — they simply want to better themselves. What’s so bad about that?

The answer is, “nothing” — but they broke the law. It may be a bad law, it may be an unwise law, it may even be an unjust law — but it is still the law . . . and society runs on laws. The clear teaching of the Catholic Church is that you must obey even an unjust law that does not force you personally to do direct and objective evil.

This is why something that many may regard as immoral — e.g., a law against blocking access to abortion providers (as opposed to trying to persuade people not to enter) — must be obeyed, where a law forcing you to pay for abortion or contraception, or to return a slave to its master, can be disobeyed without incurring moral guilt.

That’s the catch: you may not incur moral guilt, but you may incur a civil penalty. This is because getting away with breaking even an unjust law without just cause (and you are not usually the best judge of the justice of your cause) fosters contempt for all law, and harms the common good. It sets a bad example for everyone else, and makes it more likely that others will break other laws for increasingly specious reasons.

This was, e.g., the point of Herman Melville’s novella, Billy Budd, Foretopman. While it was clearly accidental, Budd killed a superior officer (mutiny and murder), the near-demonic Claggart, who had, just as clearly, tormented Budd past endurance and was, by any measure, responsible for instigating the chain of circumstances that led to his own death. Captain Vere (“Truth”) acknowledged Budd’s moral innocence — and hanged him . . . with Budd’s blessing. Anything else in light of the recent mutinies at Spithead and the Nore was impossible if ship’s discipline was to be maintained.

Thus, while there may be many very good reasons for legalizing illegal immigrants, it sends a very bad message to the rest of society, as well as creating understandable resentment among legal immigrants and others. It says you can break the law with impunity if you just get enough power to coerce others, or change the law for your personal benefit after you’ve already broken it.

The only real solution is to remove the reasons for limiting immigration in the first place. Even then, if all limitations were to be removed, those who broke the law should be penalized in some meaningful way, or there has been an injustice committed against all those who obeyed the law.

#30#

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