Stephen Flynn

The illegal immigration issue has been absent from the front pages of newspapers for several months, but that shouldn’t reduce its importance as a national issue.I want to address a common attitude found in the debate: that illegal immigrants are bad people because they broke our laws. I don’t think being an illegal immigrant makes you a bad person. Unfortunately, many Americans do because they equate right and wrong with legal and illegal.

Smoking marijuana is illegal therefore it’s wrong. Driving 66 mph on a freeway is illegal, therefore it’s wrong. Watching a DVD on a Linux computer is illegal, therefore it’s wrong. Buying beer for 20-year-old college students is illegal, therefore it’s wrong.

But history should teach us that morality and law are not mutually inclusive. In the 1850s, many Americans said that helping a slave escape to Canada was illegal, therefore it was wrong. In fact, the present-day efforts of politicians to solve the illegal immigration “problem” sound a lot like the former efforts of southern slaveholders to reign in the fugitive slave “problem” in the mid-19th century.

Slaves escaping to the free states had always posed a problem for southern planters, who hired slave catchers to exercise their constitutional right to retrieve their slave property. Before the Civil War, the Constitution said that if a slave ran away to the North, he must be returned to his original owner.

Due to pressure from abolition sentiment and a Supreme Court decision which abdicated state governments from responsibility over the fugitive slave problem, free states began passing “personal liberty laws” which forbade the use of state jails and police to imprison alleged fugitive slaves, thus making it nearly impossible to enforce the law.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed to make the slave catcher’s job easier by establishing special commissions to deal with fugitives, heavily fining those who obstruct the process in any way, and rewarding judges upon every conviction.

Four out of five apprehended slaves in the North were successfully tried in these special courts and returned back to their southern owners. The arguments used both by slave catchers and organizations like the Minutemen, a group of civilians who help enforce current immigration laws, are very similar.

Like the slave catchers in the 1850s, the Minutemen claim the Constitution is on their side, which is true. The Constitution clearly states that the federal government is responsible for “establishing an uniform Rule of Naturalization,” or immigration.

But the Constitution also says that fugitive slaves must be returned to their owners. So just because the Constitution expresses something doesn’t mean you should use it as a moral crux. The sentiments expressed back then and now are also similar. You will often hear an anti-immigrant xenophobe say: “I don’t oppose immigration, I just don’t like illegal immigration!”

That sounds just like what a racist would have said in the 1850s: “I don’t hate Negroes, I just hate those fugitive Negro slaves who break our laws!” Fugitive slaves and illegal immigrants are very similar in that they break federal law, but haven’t done anything wrong. If I hire an illegal immigrant to mow my lawn, I see it as a contract between two sovereigns. I don’t care where they come from or who they are; so long as the price is right, they do good work and want to do it. The same idea applies to fugitive slaves. They did nothing wrong except deprive a southern planter of his morally repugnant form of property.

Unfortunately, Washington bureaucrats on a power trip exploit anti-illegal immigration sentiment for their own gain. Presidential hopeful John Edwards recently pandered to xenophobic Iowans on the campaign trial, promising to be “harder on employers who violate the law” concerning hiring illegal immigrants.

Barack Obama also pandered to the floor of the Senate last year, saying “… Those who enter our country illegally and those who employ them disrespect the rule of law. …We need a simple, foolproof and mandatory mechanism for all employers to check the legal status of new hires.”

On his presidential campaign Web site, Obama says, “We need to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.”

Mr. Senator, I disagree. People who want to come to this country to trade in our markets should be able to do so in any number, by any form.

If immigration quotas were abolished, migrant workers would enter our borders at a legal checkpoint and undergo a simple security check to make sure they aren’t terrorists carrying nuclear bombs. I want to make the illegals in this country legal. Instead of cracking down on employers who hire hard-working illegal immigrants, we the people should be cracking down on politicians for their blatant disregard of our civil liberties and economic freedoms.