In The News
COMMENTARY: What part of illegal don’t you understand?
By Dominique Paul Noth, Editor
Milwaukee Labor Press
No one is more adept at creating demeaning one-liners and ludicrous generalities than the email parrot chain that exists among conservative talk radio shows, as everyone driving across the country twisting their radio dials can attest.
Over the years I’ve assembled quite a collection of these kindergarten catch phrases. My favorite of late is aimed at the immigration movement, a blatant effort to silence debate. The translation for “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” is simply: “They broke the law to get here – case closed, so get off the street and shut up.”
So, what part of illegal don’t I understand? The same part most Americans didn’t during a decade of Prohibition.
The same “illegal” Americans became defenders of in the civil disobedience marches and boycotts of the 1950s and 1960s.
(The mainstream media back then said the cause was just but won’t get anywhere by boycotts and confrontation. Sound familiar? But those tactics did work, even into the 1970s when 17 million Americans boycotted grapes in support of migrant workers. It could be more easily argued that, when such protests stalled in the 1980s and 1990s — as the establishment got more sophisticated dealing with them — so did social progress.)
It’s the same part of illegal we wish more residents had engaged in. That would have avoided a series of stains on our nation – not just slavery but the 60 years of racist exclusion of Asian immigrants. Those laws didn’t stop until 1943, when we needed the Chinese to help in the war effort.
It is the stain of 1939 when FDR legally sent back to Europe the 932 Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis, dooming many to Holocaust ovens. It was one of the events that turned thousands of US citizens to illegal behavior, pretending to be relatives of such refugees to ensure their safe entry into America.
It is the part of illegal we have delighted to see explode in other supposedly democratic countries. Today we regard as heroes those who defied the anti-Semitism and anti-Islam regimes in Europe and the apartheid laws of South Africa. This is the part of illegal we do understand since many (Gandhi, Mandela, King) once treated as lawbreakers emerged as the moral icons of their nations.
It is the illegal disguised as legal that Thomas Jefferson complained about in the Declaration of Independence. One of the charges against King George III was that “He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners” and “refusing to pass other [laws] to encourage their Migrations hither.”
It is the part of “illegal” we wish more people had supported. We understand from the Nuremberg trials after World War II that citizens as well as the military should refuse to obey laws that offend humanity.
As we also understand that leaking of bad government behavior, from the Pentagon Papers to the existence of secret terrorist prisons overseas and rendition of suspects to nations that torture, morally exposed larger offenses against our laws than the laws broken to reveal them.
All these examples – and there are many more – are not pointed out to oppose the “rule of law” so ingrained in all sides of civic expectation. But let’s clarify what that rule really is.
It does not defend legal obfuscation to disguise the higher laws being broken. It does forcefully oppose the vigilantism the border Minutemen engage in, trying with threat of posse to impose their views on an issue of moral complexity.
The mass immigration marches are well within the American rule of law, a willingness to confront our national behavior without threat of violence, a protest that does not insist on a single pathway to legalization but galvanizes a common problem.
Through history, the United States has focused not on some automatic “rule of law” but on the “rule of good law.”
We have never just blindly accepted everything a government passes or interprets. We petition for redress.
Our nation has been on its most perilous ground when the laws on its book attack the natural law of family unity and the value of a single human life.
(Not to mention those laws that seem motivated by skin color, greed and status quo.)
The irony today is that conservatives and liberals agree on one thing in the debate – that our current immigration laws are contradictory, incoherent and mired in red tape. This is the part of illegal that makes so many catch phrases in the talk radio world simply laughable in the face of modern realities as well as truthful history.
Take another favorite: “My ancestors got here legally; they should, too.”
How can these people be so sure? There were few restrictions on immigration until the 20th century, which brought its own turmoil and false documents. But from the 1800s on, despite minor restrictions compared with today, there was rampant fraud, deceptive entry and corruption.
The federal government, American companies and even states were taking kickbacks and violating minimal standards of naturalization and the legal requirements of “good moral character.”
Few of the strident voices flocking to the felony stance of Rep. James Sensenbrenner can know there isn’t a horse thief in their background, or his, for that matter. That’s lost in time.
Those so-called “legal immigration lines” that people say today’s illegal immigrants should leave the country to go stand in – who makes those lines, who’s in them and how did they get there? Money and influence as well as relatives in the US play a part, as have years of delay and line-switching. Studies suggest a fourth of illegal immigrants were once legal but government or and companies failed to renew, failed to inform or simply lost their applications.
Our immigration laws have changed dozens upon dozens of times over the centuries in response to economic concerns, social fears, systemic corruption and the conflicts of war and peace. What was legal then is illegal now and yet there has been one constant: The infusions of fresh immigrants revitalize enterprise and, over time, given residency and rights, actually elevate wages and the economy.
The most amazing thing about the current immigrant protests is that the “illegals” – as they are labeled to demean them — are standing up with pride alongside their legal brothers and sisters. Their boldness openly scares some of those talk show listeners, but it is in an American tradition of speaking out for the human condition.
Group action to change the law is an essential part of the American experience. Defying the law peacefully carries consequences, but defying laws driven by one class against another have historically brought not punishment but rethinking across the divide.
This is the part of illegal we had better understand. And sometimes did.