How could anybody be opposed to the plight of the tired, poor, and wretched refuse of Central America? Some on the left invoke Christian obligation to help those in need. A few on the right, most notably George Will, have noted America’s long tradition of welcoming the oppressed.
The fact that people fleeing bad situations come to the land of milk and honey is completely rational. Easy access, free social services, and lack of law enforcement encourage entry. That parents would send their children unaccompanied to America speaks to the desperate situation of those who come, and the promise of the nation to which they flee. Opposition to the plight of these illegal immigrants unfortunately gives the impression of racism, as if there is fear of too many brown-skinned people arriving on top of La Bestia. But disapproval of those who enter the country illegally is not racially motivated. It’s cultural.
Many Americans are suspicious of those who enter the country illegally because for most of us fair play is a hallmark of civility. The concern is that people who show up uninvited and illegally might not make good neighbors. Such attitudes sound old-fashioned or parochial to some, but it’s human nature to be suspicious of people who don’t play by the rules. Cutting-in-line in America is taboo, and border hopping is the ultimate line-cutting. Most of the people I know who are really incensed about the situation are naturalized citizens who waited in line, paid the fees, passed the test, and swore an oath to become Americans. They did it the right way. No one likes the guy who cuts in line at the movie theater. It’s not an endearing quality.
A deeper concern is that people who enter illegally into the country have little respect for the law. It is not unreasonable to assume that if you come from a country where people routinely flout the law, dodge taxes, and bribe public officials, combined with the fact that you entered this country illegally, that you might bring those attitudes and practices with you. The concern is not that these folks are intent on breaking the law, but that they have little experience in upholding it. It’s a cultural concern that isn’t much different than the misgivings a devout Jew might have about their daughter marrying an evangelical Baptist. A way of life is at stake. For people to whom religion (or in this case the rule of law) doesn’t matter, this might all seem trivial. But for those of us who care, it’s a big deal. Ultimately the rule of law, like religion, is a cultural aspect that erodes if it’s not preserved.
The vast majority of the illegal immigrants who come here aren’t coming to make trouble. But most are not coming here to become Americans either. They’re more concerned about being in America because of the immediate benefits they receive – safety, shelter, sustenance. But if they continue to live here without a fundamental understanding of what makes America special, they lose out on becoming American, will continue to exist in the shadows, and may unfortunately fall back into the darkness from which they fled.
America is a big nation with lots of money that can surely serve as refuge – as has been our tradition – for those in need. But doing so shouldn’t come at the expense of the principles that fuel the lamp of liberty which guides people to our shores.
As tens of thousands of people wait idly in holding facilities across the nation – guests of the American taxpayers – now might be a good time to start reading the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. They’re short. You’ve got plenty of time on your hands. And there is nothing this country loves more than to help people who want to be Americans …. and who want to do it the right way.