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What Part of “Illegal” Really Matters?

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The mantra of some in the anti-immigration movement in this country can be found in the following question: What part of “illegal” do you not understand? It is regularly featured on protest placards; it’s in their widely circulated emails.

Most anti-immigration types will not say they are anti-immigration, of course — they’re just anti–illegal immigration, they say. “These people,” they rail, righteous with indignation, “are here in violation of our laws!

Quick question: If you’re really opposed only to illegal immigration, then surely you won’t object if Congress changes federal immigration law to make it easier for people to come to the United States, right? If we just — voila! — make all “illegal immigrants” “legal” by law, then where does that leave your argument?

The truth is, some of these people just don’t like immigrants. They want as few as possible to come to the United States, but they don’t have the courage to say it, so they hide behind current immigration law to deny those who want a better lives for themselves and their families such an opportunity.

Imagine if we applied their thinking consistently. It wouldn’t take long for many of those who claim they oppose only illegal immigration to be singing a different tune.

Take the recent Heller decision, which overturned Washington, D.C.’s, draconian gun laws. How many “law and order” conservatives were on hand to chide those hoping the court would overturn D.C. law? (“Hey, Second Amendment Lover: What part of ‘illegal’ do you not understand?”)

Some Americans express outrage when a municipal government harasses some young person for running a lemonade stand, citing health and safety laws, permit fees, and business-license requirements. But isn’t that an illegal business? (“Hey, Free-Enterprise Advocate: What part of ‘illegal’ do you not understand?”)

Oh, that’s different, they’ll say. Owning a gun and operating a business — those are important constitutional rights.

You mean, like freedom?

In that vein, let’s ask another question: If you oppose only illegal immigration, then what are your feelings on escaped slaves in the antebellum South? After all, they were breaking the law when they ran away — when they immigrated — to a non–slave state!

Many Americans at the time understood the right of people — all people — to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and helped runaway slaves. So much so that pro-slavery forces in Congress pushed through a federal law that threatened six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine for anyone who helped a slave to escape.

Freedom-loving Americans understood that in any conflict between law and right, right should prevail. The law be damned. They didn’t say, “Escaping from your master is illegal — what part of that do you not understand?” Instead they demanded that slavery be abolished.

Law, in any republic, should be sacrosanct; it should be inviolable — but never as an end in itself. Law exists to serve the people, to protect their rights — to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those are the rights of “all men” — each and every human being.

The American colonists lived under a government that violated their rights, and in defiance of the law (“‘Hey, colonists,’ shouted the King, ‘what part of “illegal” do you not understand?’ And the colonists, sufficiently cowed, laid down their arms and went back to sipping tea” is not part of our national narrative!) they overthrew their government so that another could be established in its place — one where “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” might be enjoyed by everyone.

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    Scott McPherson is policy adviser at The Future of Freedom Foundation. An advocate of the Free State Project, he lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.