Conservatives look first to the “Rule of Law.” That said, they also give weight, as they should, to their personal values, including moral values, Biblical values, and American values. To many conservatives, moral, Biblical, and American values are all fundamentally inter-related. However, as stated above, they first look to the rule of law. The rule of law on the issue of undocumented or “illegal” immigrants is pretty straightforward. These people came illegally. Therefore, many conservatives feel that if we gave them “amnesty,” it would flaunt the rule of law, and in the absence of a comprehensive solution, it would become a magnet for future illegal immigration.
However, leaving the moral and Biblical arguments for a future discussion, I want to start by addressing the personal responsibility aspects of reform. We first look to the immigrants themselves. Conservatives believe that first and foremost, the undocumented immigrants must accept personal responsibility for either arriving illegally, or arriving legally, but then overstaying their visas. I note that this second category accounts for over 40% of the undocumented immigrants that are currently present in our country.
However, here is where that argument starts to break down. What about “our nation’s” personal responsibility? Yes, the United States certainly has a share of our own personal responsibility for the undocumented being here. Even the most “Restrictionist” conservatives readily admit that the United States government colluded with our business interests to first allow these undocumented immigrants to come here, and then by turning a blind eye on the enforcement provisions against employing illegal immigrants, the United States allowed these millions of undocumented immigrants to work here. The collusion of our government and our business interests has been going on since at least 1986, which was when President Reagan signed the last immigration reform bill, and codified laws against hiring illegal immigrant workers.
These laws are on our books. Yet, they have, for the most part, been largely ignored at the behest of our business community. Our nation’s businesses needed these workers to perform the hard and low paying jobs that until recently Americans simply did not want to do. In most cases, even now, most Americans still do not want to do these jobs, such as picking fruit, or cleaning dishes or toilets. My good friend and colleague Dr. Richard Land from the Southern Baptist Convention often states that the United States had two signs on the border; one that said “No Trespassing,” and another that said, “Help Wanted.” Dr. Land is absolutely correct in his analogy.
Therefore, doesn’t America have at least some responsibility for the presence of these workers? Absolutely our nation has some measure of responsibility for these workers coming, and then staying here. Without question, the issue of personal responsibility is and must always be a two way street. Some might argue about who was more responsible? The undocumented immigrants for coming illegally, or the U.S. for allowing then to come, stay, and work? I say that this is a moot question. Responsible is responsible. That is precisely what the concept of “personal responsibility,” is all about. It doesn’t matter who was more responsible. That is a, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” argument. If the United States was in any way responsible, (and of course we were very responsible), then it doesn’t matter who was more responsible, we were, as a nation, at least partially responsible.
Therefore, if the United States is to accept at least some personal responsibility for the presence of the 11,000,000 undocumented workers, then the strict rule of law argument that demands deportation of any undocumented immigrants must be re-examined. Perhaps we can find a way for the undocumented people to come forward, admit their guilt, and accept their punishment. However, bearing in mind that we are, at least to some degree personally responsible for their having come here, stayed here, and worked here, perhaps we can find a punishment that is commensurate with their level of guilt. As of today, the law is clear on this issue. They should, according to the law, be deported.
However, weighing the fact that our nation was to some degree personally responsible for their illegal presence, a new law, or reform, can measure this mitigating factor in their illegal presence, and find a different path. A conservative path. What I am suggesting is that these people, having admitted to the guilt of being here illegally, should be punished, but to some lesser degree of punishment than deportation, which is life altering for them and their families. I would suggest that for the undocumented immigrants that have been here for a very long time, they should be allowed, under a narrow and strictly defined set of qualification as well as penalty parameters, to stay in the United States.
I am not suggesting amnesty. I am not even suggesting that the U.S. put these undocumented workers on a path to citizenship. I am suggesting that they be given an opportunity to get right with the law, emerge from the shadows of society, and participate in the American experience. Our American values demand fairness, as well as opportunity. When viewed through the conservative lens of personal responsibility, our nation must deal with the undocumented population strictly, yet also fairly and compassionately. Our values demand nothing less. Our values demand that we come to some accommodation or solution to what is broadly understood to be one of the most intractable yet vitally important issues facing our nation today. It is time for us to deal, in an adult, responsible, and conservative manner, with this urgent problem once and for all.
Gittelson is president and co-founder of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.