A Big Obstacle to Immigration Reform

According to an old jazz tune, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way how you do it.”

It is good to keep this principle in mind various areas of human conduct.  Imagine a couple of businessmen who have concluded a deal.  Suppose they have have the contract drawn up and have both examined it carefully.  Both are convinced that it is mutually beneficial.  But suppose further that when they show up to sign the contract, one of them says: “Man, are you a sucker!”  The other might well hesitate to sign.  He might think there is something funny in the contract that had escaped him.  He might at least doubt that his potential partner was going to execute his part of the bargain in an above board way.  In cooperative endeavors, the way one side talks about the thing to be done can have a big impact on whether it gets done at all, regardless of what anybody says or thinks about the merits.

We see this all the time in politics–for example, in relation to taxation.  It would be hard to raise taxes under any circumstances, because people naturally resist having to pay more than they do.  But when they argue for tax increases, Democrats make it harder to do by the way they talk about it.  It would be one thing to say that taxes need to be increased because we need to close the deficit, or to pay for  some pressing public need.  But Democrats typically cannot leave it at that.  They also have to say that it is “right” to raise taxes to make sure that everybody is paying their “fair share.”  Thus they imply that those whose taxes they want to raise are currently not doing their fair share, as if they are deadbeats or shirkers.  This, of course, is offensive to many people whose cooperation would be necessary and makes tax increases even harder.  (I’m not saying, by they way, that we should raise taxes.  I’m only making a point about how the wrong kind of rhetoric can be self-defeating.)


This brings us to immigration.  Currently a number of leading figures in both political parties are trying to win support for a Senate bill enacting one version of comprehensive immigration reform.  The plan includes a kind of double-amnesty for people who have entered the country without proper permission.  Its first stage grants them a provisional legal status, and a later stage opens up the possibilty of permanent legal status and then, even later, citizenship.

Whatever you think about the merits of this plan, there are certain obvious reasons why it would be hard to enact.  Any amnesty tends to undermine respect for the law, and this makes it hard for many Americans to accept.  This concern is heightened by the fact that nation just did an amnesty in 1986.  That reform was supposed to lead to better enforcement, at which task it obviously failed.  If it had succeeded there would be no need to talk about a further reform now.  So if one amnesty makes many people uncomfortable, amnesty after amnesty tends to make them think that we are making a joke of the rule of law, and that there will be no successful enforcement even after the new reform.

And this brings us back to my original point.  These concerns about respect for law and the possibility of ongoing uncontrolled unlawful entry are naturally going to occur to a lot of people whose support would be necessary to get an immigration reform enacted.  And many of the people who most want to enact such a reform actually make it more difficult by speaking as if unlawful entry is not really a serious transgression.  They are animated by a worthy impulse: a humane concern for people who have already entered.  But some who support amnesty seem unable to bring themselves to condemn unlawful entry as such.  They present it as a victimless offense.  This kind of rhetoric is poisonous to the trust that would be necessary to winning the support of people whose primary concern is seriousness about future enforcement.

Of course, if you aim to get some kind of amnesty you can’t speak about unlawful entry as if it were one of the greatest crimes.  If it were, an amnesty would make no sense; and in any case unlawful entry, though an infraction of law, is not one of the greatest crimes.  Nevertheless, the paradoxical truth is that immigration reform would be easier to accomplish if the left’s rhetoric about illegal immigration were tougher.  In trying to show resolve, President Obama often lectures us to “make no mistake” about this or that.  Imagine if, as part of his pitch for immigration reform, the President put everyone on notice that future enforcement will be very effective and those who attempt unlawful entery will be apprehended.  Such rhetoric would cause much opposition to amnesty to vanish.  But I don’t think the President could bring himself to speak that way.



  • Joe Nalf

    I only read CatholicVote occassionally when I need a good laugh. Yet again, the bloggers on this side are on the wrong side the Church.

    Kim Daniels has truly articulated a Catholic response to immigration:


    If you’re so concerned about “illegals” go to South Boston, the North End of Boston, or North Providence and start rounding up all the immigrant Irish or Italian Catholics who are without papers. I lived there for years and it’s so ridiculously easy to find an Italian illegal immigrant, but somehow, no one goes after them.

    Kim Daniels says it best – we are an Immigrant Church and always have been. If this sorry excuse for a website is really non-partisan, maybe try getting her to write something for it.

  • jgbech

    Once more… it’s all the fault of the Dems. Carson conveniently omits the name of the President who championed amnesty in 1986, the martyred Ronal Reagan. I would encourage Martin Luther to buy some indulgences before we run out.

  • larryr

    Democrats like rushing this grand scale immigration before 2014! They get more voters, and they get more tax (fines) revenue. A real win-win!

    Selling and Buying citizenship (forgiveness) smacks of Middle Age Catholic plenary indulgences, complete forgiveness for doing good deeds that included charitable donations of money for a good righteous cause. Greedy bureaucrats sought to extract the maximum amount of money for each indulgence. Indulgences became a way for Catholic rulers to fund expensive projects, growing to a great magnitude of forgiveness peddling for a price.

  • teej

    What is being offered to those illegally present in the United States is not an amnesty. There is a fine attached that illegal immigrants are required to pay if they are to regularize their status and initiate the path to citizenship (http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2013/04/23/immigration-will-continue-to-benefit-all-americans/). A fine IS a penalty and if there is a penalty attached to an infraction it cannot, by definition, be called an amnesty. You can argue that the punishment, the fine in this case, does not suit the crime but you cannot (if you want to be intellectually coherent) argue that what is being offered is an amnesty.



Receive our updates via email.