The debate over the reform of immigration laws has come to South Carolina with great urgency, and most of the Republican candidates for governor support an approach similar to that taken in Arizona. In the service of suggesting a way to hold in creative tension the various principles that are in competition with each other in this debate, I offered a column to the Greenville News which they published on 8 May 2010. Here is the text of that column:
What should we do about the millions of people who live and work in the United States illegally? This is a vexing question with political and moral dimensions, but to sort through these questions, we first need to think clearly about the principles at stake in our ongoing debate. In the service of thinking clearly about immigration reform, I suggest these principles.
First, every sovereign nation has the right and duty to secure its borders and regulate entry of those who are not its citizens. This is a fundamental principle of natural law, and the government of the United States has failed in this responsibility along our border with Mexico. At the present moment, the federal government does not have effective control of our southern border, and into the breach created by this failure others are now leaping, starting with the state of Arizona. For the sake of our national security and the rule of law, this must change as quickly as possible, and voters should hold the president and Congress accountable for this fundamental function of the national government.
Second, every human person has the natural right and duty to provide for himself and his family the means to live a life in keeping with human dignity. From this right and duty proceeds a corollary principle: every human person has a natural right to move to a place where he can provide a decent living for his family in safety and security. Most of the millions of immigrants from Central and South America who have come to the United States are here for this reason, and they are working with great energy and diligence to make a better life for themselves and their children. We cannot blame them for doing what anyone of us would do, namely -- to find every possible way of improving the lives of those we love. If there are true criminals among them, then let’s find them and punish them according to law--including with deportation, but we should not treat as criminals those who are only trying to provide a decent life for themselves and their families and who are now here because of our own failure to secure our borders.
Third, the forced repatriation of immigrants by the millions is the sort of injustice against which Americans naturally rise up in righteous indignation when it happens in the Middle East or on the steppes of Eastern Europe or Asia. Despite the fact that several million people now living in the United States entered our nation illegally, there is no possible way for us to consider forcing them to leave now that they are here. A sensible, practical way must be found to allow these people to become legal residents and continue to live productive lives in the United States without fear of deportation and separation from their families. This does not mean that present illegal aliens should become American citizens, and perhaps a practical compromise would be to stipulate that no one who entered the country illegally could ever become a citizen. But they are here, and we must acknowledge the fact of their presence and their natural human right to choose where to live and work by making possible a transition to legal residence.
Finally, nothing in this discussion should be influenced by the fact that most of those who are now here illegally speak Spanish and have dark brown skin. The ugly specter of racism is a barely concealed part of too much rhetoric in our public debates, and that is unworthy of the free people of the United States. If you doubt that racism is at work in how we think about this matter, consider how the present immigration debate would be different if it involved 15 million English-speaking, blond-haired, blue-eyed Canadians streaming over our northern border. Everyone now living in North and South America who is not descended from the many indigenous tribes of Native Americans is here because their ancestors immigrated from somewhere else. Let us keep that fact ever in mind along with the principles of natural law and equity as we decide how to secure our borders and regulate the presence among us of those who were born somewhere else but who want to make their home and provide for their children in the Land of the Free.