Yesterday here at Voices, Bart Barber wrote A Non-Nativist Case for Strict Enforcement of Immigration Law. There are several reasons I approached Bart’s article with a lot of anticipation. One of which is the huge amount of respect I have for Bart. Another is that he’s helped me think through immigration-related issues before (here, here, here, and here, for example) in ways that have been really, really helpful.
But yesterday’s post left me scratching my head. It’s not that I think Bart is wrong in advocating for the principle of strict enforcement of immigration laws. I’m for border security and better enforcement. I and many other Southern Baptists have signed the EIT Statement of Principles, which includes, as two of its six key principles, “Respects the rule of law” and “Guarantees secure national borders.”
So why did Bart’s piece not sit well with me? I’ve reflected some and I think there are two main reasons. First, I think Bart gives right answers to some of the wrong questions. Second, I think his main thesis fails under scrutiny because there are significant exceptions to the principle he lays out. Jumping from lax enforcement of bad laws to strict enforcement of bad laws may lead us to even greater injustice than what we’re currently seeing.
Let’s start with where I think Bart is correct. (1) We want laws that accomplish just outcomes for everyone. (2) Lack of enforcement of immigration law can cause injustice in countless ways. (3) This one is huge and I really appreciate Bart highlighting it: We should reject the nativist, protectionist arguments often being advanced these days. (4) Our current system and lack of enforcement have unfairly disadvantaged potential immigrants, refugees, and others who don’t have access to a land border into the U.S. (5) Our immigration enforcement should take place without separating families at the border.
Let’s not gloss over these areas of agreement. There is a lot here. A lot of substance. And I wish that all of those involved in this debate could start from this foundation.
Problem #1: Wrong Questions
With that foundation in place, I think Bart’s argument answered questions that most people aren’t asking at this point. Maybe they should be, but I don’t think that’s where the conversation is. I understand Bart to be saying we have two options to even out the inequality between border/non-border situations: Either we ease access for non-border countries or we restrict access* for border countries.
The only conversation seemingly taking place at this point is restricting access. There is a push from the far right and this administration to severely limit all immigration, not to potentially expand immigration from non-border countries. That’s why I say this may be the right answer (making sure access is equitable) but in our current situation that’s going to be nearly universally understood as an argument for restriction.
Another fear I have is advocating for “strict enforcement” in this climate possibly communicates an approval of the harsh tactics currently in the headlines. Bart, to his credit, expressly denounces the deterrent strategy of separating families. Also, “strict enforcement” of the laws may actually point to a more humane way of treating asylum seekers than the family separation practice recently implemented (and more recently potentially reversed) by the Trump administration. I’ve seen some argue that asylum seekers are promised due process that would be more, not less, compassionate. But I don’t think that’s how Bart’s headline would normally be interpreted. Wish that everyone who saw the headline would stick around long enough to read Bart’s last paragraph!
Problem #2: Exceptions to the Thesis
I understand the heart of Bart’s argument to rest on his fifth paragraph:
Rather, I’m arguing for the strict enforcement of immigration law (and I’m open to the improvement of the laws on the books) because I believe that these laws provide justice for immigrants themselves. When our immigration laws go unenforced, the result is injustice for immigrants.
Bart makes a great case that unenforced immigration laws cause injustice to certain immigrants – particularly immigrants without access to a U.S. land border. No argument there. But what needs to be said in addition is that in our complex, confusing immigration system, there are times that strict enforcement of the law can create a different kind of injustice – one that could be worse than the first.
As an example, I watched this documentary about a year ago. One thing I haven’t been able to forget is the first-hand accounts contained where immigration laws were enforced but clearly led to injustice, rather than fair, common-sense outcomes. If you’re short on time, jump ahead to the 27:00 mark and listen to the story of Bruce and his family.
Moving from lax enforcement of bad laws to strict enforcement of bad laws potentially puts us in a situation where we’re still dealing with the problem of injustice – maybe of a different kind and possibly even more severe. We have injustice now? Yes. The answer isn’t trading for another kind of (potentially worse) injustice.
The logical progression that I understand from Bart’s post could be expressed this way:
Lax Enforcement -> Strict Enforcement -> Fix the Laws
I believe a better paradigm, a better general strategy would be to swap the second and third steps:
Lax Enforcement -> Fix the Laws -> Strict Enforcement
Of course, the reality is more complicated. We are not going to choose only enforcement or only fixing laws. We should move forward on both fronts. The question comes down to emphasis or priority. Which comes temporally first? Which comes logically first? My argument here is that fixing the laws ought to take temporal and logical priority. But again, we don’t have to choose either/or.
If we moved strategically, we could move forward in both areas without increasing injustice. Securing the border with a physical barrier (or other effective means) would be a step forward in enforcement with no (that I can see) potentially greater injustice associated. While the border is being secured in that way, let’s focus our other energy on improving existing laws so they really are more just and fair. Then, with the border secure and better immigration laws in place, we move fairly into a mindset of strict enforcement.
Moving from ‘where we are now’ directly into a mode of strict enforcement skips important steps that safeguard human dignity and compassion. We have better options available and, especially as the church, we should make every effort to get to our destination making sure people are treated fairly in the process.
And I think when you get down to it, Bart’s position is probably not much different than what I’ve tried to argue for here. And that gives me hope I’m not too far off base.
*Please note when I talk about access here, I’m talking about legal accessibility. This is not an argument against a physical barrier. The point of the physical barrier is to force people trying to enter to go through an established legal process.