Being Hard or Soft on Immigration Law

Advocating for comprehensive immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants is often viewed as “being soft on the law.” As a strong form of the argument goes, those entering the USA illegally broke the law and they should therefore be punished to the full extent of the law, which currently calls for deportation. To do otherwise is to provide “amnesty.”

I agree that illegal immigrants have broken the law, and therefore some form of punishment is appropriate. Therefore I am not in favor of “amnesty,” if what you mean by that word is “no punishment whatsoever.” But I question the prevalent truncated view of criminal justice, which suggests that such justice is accomplished when someone who has broken the law is given suitable retribution by government.

A richer view of the meaning of justice is provided by the “restorative justice” movement. The vision of restorative justice does not preclude some form of punishment. But it is broader in scope than just punishment. It focuses on meeting the needs of all persons affected by the breaking of a law, not just the offender, but also those who are victimized by the breaking of the law, and the communities in which both the offender and the victims live. And the ultimate goal is to restore harmonious relationships between all persons involved and promote the flourishing of all these persons. A tall order indeed (two excellent books on the Restorative Justice movement are Changing Lenses by Howard Zehr and Beyond Retribution by Christopher Marshall).

Looking at the issue of immigration law through the lens of the Restorative Justice movement highlights the need for comprehensive immigration reform on several fronts. For example, the well-being of the families of illegal immigrants needs to be fostered, including their children who have US citizenship by virtue of their birth in our country (which the recent failed attempt at legislating the Dream Act sought to address).

Appropriate measures need to be taken to deal with employers who hire illegal immigrants. What is the appropriate punishment for these employers who are also breaking the law? What steps can be taken to assist employers who wish to hire legal immigrants, in ways that do not disadvantage our non-immigrant workforce, for the needs of this workforce also need to be taken into account.

Appropriate steps also need to be taken to provide adequate social and educational services to all immigrants. The challenges faced by law enforcement officers must be addressed, since they are also included in the wide web of persons affected by illegal immigration.

Steps also need to be taken to improve border security, to minimize, if not eliminate, the influx of illegal immigrants. It can also be argued that the USA needs to do what it can to foster economic growth and prosperity in neighboring countries to minimize the incentives for illegal immigration.

And foremost, in my estimation, illegal immigrants need to be provided with a pathway to citizenship that includes appropriate punishment for their having broken the law, such as the levying of fines and “getting in the back of the line.” There is room for legitimate debate as to the magnitude of such punishment. But as long as there is some form of punishment it is inaccurate to label what I am proposing as “amnesty.”

The above reflections will be written off by many as the ramblings of someone who is “soft on the law.” Not at all! I believe that existing laws should be enforced. But I also believe that existing laws can often be improved upon. And in my estimation the comprehensive reform of immigration law for which I advocate would be a vast improvement over existing immigration law.

My proposal is also consistent with my understanding of the teaching of Jesus that as important as the law is, there are some things that are even more important, such as “mercy” (Matthew 23:23). The comprehensive immigration law reform that I envision will strike a proper balance between respect for the law and the call of Jesus to be merciful.

Given the sad state of current political discourse, the possibility that congress will soon reach agreement on the elements of comprehensive immigration reform is virtually non-existent. Not to belabor too much what I have argued for extensively on other pages of this web site, the problem is that in the never-ending quest to get elected or re-elected, politicians too often take a “full-loaf” approach to doing politics, not settling for anything less than all that they perceive their constituencies to want. The idea of getting half of what you want, while those on the other side of the aisle also get their half, is anathema. Comprehensive immigration reform will be possible only when politicians get beyond such a polarized view of doing politics, demonstrating a willingness to consider reforms that lie in-between the extreme views of both the “Left” and the “Right.”