What a great time I had at the immigration debate at Pomona College last Thursday! Since I was debating the president of the “Minutemen,” Marvin Stewart, the event was rife with controversy on campus. You’ll recall that when the debate was originally scheduled last spring, the then-head of the Minutemen, Jim Gilchrist, backed out, ostensibly because he was scared after having experienced an adverse reaction among students at Columbia University. (See “Gilchrist, O’Reilly, and the Cowardice Factor” by Jacob G. Hornberger.)
Despite the fact that there was much opposition, among both students and faculty, for giving a representative of the Minutemen a forum to express his views, the students in the Student Union, who organized the event, much to their credit went forward with the event anyway, with the goal of stimulating thought and discussion within the campus on the immigration issue, through the crucible of a debate. The event drew an estimated overflow, standing-room-only crowd of about 600.
Interestingly, Stewart is a Christian minister who runs a non-profit educational foundation. Thus, throughout the debate, he continually referred to sayings from the Bible. I challenged him to explain how he could reconcile God’s holy word with the U.S. government’s treatment of illegal immigrants — e.g., attacking them on the high seas with water cannons and forcibly repatriating them into Cuban communist tyranny, incarcerating them, deaths on lonely deserts and in railroad cars and in the backs tractor-trailors, etc. Not surprisingly, Stewart failed to rise to the challenge.
Instead, he kept repeating that rules are rules and, therefore, must be obeyed. My response: Just because a law is on the books doesn’t mean that it is worthy of obedience. A student in the audience had an even better comment, “You mean, like slavery?” (Stewart is an African-American.)
I pointed out to the audience that there is one — and only one — solution to the so-called immigration crisis. It is a solution that is consistent with our heritage as Americans, with economic prosperity, especially for the poor, and with moral and biblical values. That solution is the free market, which includes the free movements of goods, services, and people across borders. I pointed out how each day countless people from Maryland and Virginia cross the border between these two states and that the border (the Potomac River) has not disappeared and that neither state has lost its sovereignty.
Not surprisingly, Stewart never responded directly to this point, instead spending much of his time complaining that immigrants were adversely impacting the African-American community. I responded by pointing out that immigrants are a tremendous economic boon to a society, in at least 3 ways: the work ethic they bring, the division of labor they provide, and the increase in prosperity they produce with their consumption. I also recommended the fantastic new book on open immigration, which smashes in a serious, readable way every single argument of the anti-immigrant and closed-border crowds: Philippe Legrain’s Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them.
After about 3 questions during the Q&A, student protestors began chanting loudly “Hate is Not Debate,” which was addressed to the fact that a representative of the Minutemen was speaking on campus. Since they would not stop their chant, the Student Union was faced with either having them evicted forcibly or terminating the event early. It chose the latter, especially since there was time for just a few more questions anyway. (See “Protest Ends Debate” in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin.)
Undoubtedly, the protestors thought that their actions were protected under principles of free speech, but they are sadly mistaken. Freedom of speech simply means that the government cannot legitimately stop someone from expressing his views. But it does not grant someone the right to interfere with another person’s event. If the protestors wanted to make a statement about the immigration debate, they had the right to hire out their own hall, where they could then chant to their heart’s content. They did not have the right, moral or legal, to interfere with the immigration debate.
Also, one can only hope that the protestors learned from the debate that rather than try to suppress unpopular speech, it’s much more satisfying to smash it through reason, argumentation, and debate.
The organizers of the debate deserve commendation and praise for their courage and boldness in having the debate, especially in the face of criticism and adversity. By providing people with a stimulating intellectual debate, they achieved their aim of stimulating thought and discussion on campus about one of the burning issues of our time.