Real quick: Here’s an excerpt from a letter to the New York Times, in response to a July 4 op-ed pointing out that the US has a long tradition of accepting immigrants despite native anxieties. The letter writer disputes the relevance of this historical argument to our current immigration controversy. Put your fingers on your buzzers and your reading glasses on your, um, face, and let’s play … Spot the Tautology!
Regardless of the number or ethnic background, the entry of illegal immigrants is, according to our laws, unacceptable.
If you answered “the whole quote,” you’ve found the tautology! That’s because illegal immigration is by definition unacceptable “according to our laws”; that’s what “illegal” means. The issue before this house is whether our immigration laws match our standard of what’s acceptable; if not, then we should change the laws. It does no good to rest your argument on the law that’s being debated, any more than a criminal can say that he shouldn’t be put in jail because incarceration is unacceptable to him.
You see this argument all the time in the immigration debate, and actually whenever any issue of decriminalization comes up: that the activity in question should not be decriminalized, because it’s illegal. I had an argument about whether marijuana should be legalized, in which I was told that people are free to use marijuana as long as they accept the possibility of imprisonment. There was an episode of The West Wing where one character asks another why prostitution shouldn’t be legal, and she responds, “Because in this country you’re not allowed to sell your body.” Without taking any stance for the moment on these issues, or on immigration, it should be obvious to everyone why this type of logic is not helpful. It’s circular: we can’t legalize marijuana, because if we did then we couldn’t punish people for using marijuana, which is illegal. In real life, we often find that the absolute positions that keep some laws on the books are out-of-date or harmful; when we decriminalize, surprise! nothing bad happens. Remember the laws against contraception and adultery? (Not to mention sodomy, miscegenation, and on and on…)
Of course, one could argue that, until the law is changed, it is wrong of us to break it. But that too is begging the question, since laws don’t have some sort of moral value in and of themselves, but are moral to the degree they serve the public good and protect people from harm. You have to convince me that illegal immigrants are causing harm by entering the country, not just that they’re scofflaws or whatever. If I thought otherwise, I’d have a hard time explaining to my kid how great Martin Luther King was. (And yes, people used this same argument against him: it’s fine if he wants rights, as long as he doesn’t break any statutes to get them.)
So please, everyone in the universe: stop arguing this way on anything. Understand that when you’re talking to adults you have to demonstrate why something should be illegal, rather than just relying on our inherent love of the rules.