Skip to content

Deconstructing the Rule of Law and Undocumented Immigrants

September 12, 2019

On Tuesday, MLive reported on a proposed resolution in Muskegon County to make that county a Welcoming Community. The proposal was specifically referring to immigrant being welcomed, whether they were documented or undocumented. 

The reaction, from mostly white Muskegon County residents, was one of shock and disgust. Most of the people cited in the story made mention of the fact that “this is a nation of laws,” implying that those immigrants who were here without documentation, should not be allowed to be in Muskegon County or the rest of the country for that matter. If you read the comments section on MLive for this story (which I do not recommend), you can see that words like illegal and phrases like “a nation of laws” are used quite a bit. There is also a great deal of racist and White Supremacist language used in the comments, which is a more honest reflection about how people really feel. However, I wanted to take some time to deconstruct the notion that the US is a nation of laws and what people mean when they say the US shouldn’t allow “illegals” in the country.

A Nation of Laws

When politicians, law enforcement officials or just regular folks use language like, “we are a nation of laws,” to justify discriminatory treatment of undocumented immigrants, what does that really mean? There are several reasons why, reasons we want to look at and deconstruct, specifically around laws and immigrants (although, we will use other legal examples as well.)

First, the idea that nations create laws to make sure that society is kept in check, is an idea we are taught in 9th grade civil class. However, the reality is that laws are generally created by people in power, people who have specific interests at stake. For example, from the founding of the US up until 1865, slavery was legal, mostly because those who made the laws were white men, some of which owned slaves and many of them benefited economically from the institution of slavery. (see Edward Baptist’s book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.) Slavery was eventually abolished, primarily because of the abolitionist movement’s efforts, which culminated in the Civil War.

The example of slavery being abolished in not an unusual example, since it highlights how most laws are changed in order to minimize harm, namely when social movements force lawmakers to change the law. This has been the case with all social movements in the US, whether it was the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, the suffrage movement, the civil right movement, the environmental movement, etc.

Second, when people say the US is a nation of laws it is important to distinguish between laws and morality. Just because a law exists, doesn’t make it a just law. The US has been replete with laws that were unjust. It was legal to kill indigenous people, make money by scalping them and then taking their land.

Even today, there are all kinds of laws that are unjust or social norms that are legal. Here are just a few:

  • It is legal to manufacture and drop nuclear bombs, weapons that by their very nature kill indiscriminately.
  • It is legal for corporations to pollute when they extract resources from the earth and in the process of manufacturing create waste and pollution.
  • It is legal for a small group of people to make billions of dollars, while billions of people live in poverty.
  • It is legal for development companies to profit from housing, while so many people are homeless or live in horrid living conditions.
  • It is legal for the capitalist class to spend millions of dollars to influence elections.
  • It is legal for a handful of corporations to control the majority of news media sources.
  • It is legal to discriminate against people who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender of Queer.
  • It is legal for corporations and other businesses to pay workers wages so low that they can’t afford basic necessities, often resulting in people having multiple jobs to make ends meet.
  • It is legal to incarcerate millions of people in the US, mostly black and brown, for non-violent offenses.

Just because we have laws, doesn’t mean we have to abide by them, especially if they are unjust. In fact, how many people do we revere because the deliberately broke the law in order to defy or change those very laws? How many of us celebrate the likes of Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, Harvey Milk, Silvia Rivera, Fred Hampton, the Berrigan Brothers, Dorothy Day, etc. These are all people who purposefully broke the law in order to make change.

Third, when people argue that undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be allowed into the US because we are a nation of laws, how else can we respond? Besides acknowledging that laws are made by those in power who have economic interests and that many laws are inherently unjust, it is also important to recognize that laws have evolved over time as a reaction to various social dynamics.

Historian Aviva Chomsky states in her book, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal:

“Explicitly national manifestations of control of movement emerged in the late nineteenth century, imbued with racial ideas. The first restrictive immigration laws in the United States conflated race and nation. Chinese exclusion in 1882 was based on race: as racially ineligible to citizenship, the Chinese should be excluded from entering the country as well.”

What Chomsky makes clear in her book is that the US has always deliberately discriminated against certain people from coming to the US, first the Chinese, then Japanese, Germans during WWI, Jews who were fleeing Nazi Germany, Mexicans and Central Americans – increasingly since the late 1970s and Haitians since the 1990s, just to name a few.

US immigration policy has always been race based, but it has also always been about country of origin and what relationship the US has had with those countries. For example, since the 1959 Cuban revolution, Cubans have been generally allowed to come to the US, because the US has had an antagonistic relationship with Cuba. At the same time, Haitians who were fleeing political violence or abject poverty, were not as easily granted legal status or asylum, since the US has mostly had a favorable relationship with  the Haitian government, from Papa Doc Duvalier up to the present.

There are plenty of other arguments we can use when people say that the US is a nation of laws, so undocumented people should not be allowed here, but these three main arguments are important.

Lastly, it is worth noting that the current immigrant-led immigration justice movement is not advocating lawlessness. What those involved in this movement are arguing is that the federal immigration laws are unjust and racist in nature. The immigration justice movement believes that through non-violent direct action they can not only demonstrate how unjust the current immigration laws are, but they can demonstrate how economically dependent the US economy is on the labor of the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in this country.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: