Moral Case for Immigration Amnesty


Economic considerations notwithstanding, the case for providing amnesty to undocumented immigrants is usually argued along moral lines. On the pro side, the argument boils down to granting long-term, non-felon immigrant members of our society – who through no fault of their own have been impelled by economic necessity or violence to start a new life in the US – with the ability to safely rise out of the shadows. Those opposed focus on the original sin of knowingly violating immigration laws. This hard stance is sorely lacking in empathy. Who among us would not risk such a move to improve our lives and those of our families when the alternative is to wait decades to be considered for a green card? Immigrants who come seeking a better life are as morally in the wrong as those who have fled neighborhoods in Detroit and St. Louis for the same reasons. Nevertheless, perhaps you or someone you know is of the opinion that the law is the law, no excuses. Well, I believe that if we are taking an account of transgressions, some context is also necessary.

First of all, we must consider that regardless of how you feel about unsanctioned border crossings, your fellow compatriots have been complicit in enticing undocumented immigrants to enter the US. They have turned a blind eye or refused to do their due diligence when employing them. In many cases, they have encouraged undocumented immigrants to recruit fellow undocumented family and friends for jobs. Some employers have even gone so far as to recruit in neighboring countries.

Then there is the US government. Since 1990 the undocumented immigrant population in the US has more than tripled. If the number of Canadian geese migrating into the US had tripled, it would most definitely not go unnoticed. I think that regardless of your bias, you must admit that immigrants have much more of a transformative effect on our communities. So, it is hard to make the argument that our government was unaware that this was happening. What the government did was turn a blind eye to the influx of cheap labor, because it helped to grow our economy and kept us competitive in agribusiness and other sectors that can barely compete internationally, even with the benefit of large subsidies.

Perhaps you may counter with the old cliche “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Fair enough, but you do realize that the neediness and exigent circumstances of undocumented immigrants are being exploited, right? Well, if we don’t bear any responsibility for enticing and enabling undocumented immigrants to come over, do we have any moral obligation if our government and countrymen have had a hand in creating the woeful conditions that have caused immigrants to flee to this nation? Let’s take a look at Mexico, which is far and away the largest country of origin for undocumented immigrants. Prior to its current “democratic” form of government, it was ruled by dictator and friend of the US Porfirio Diaz for 35 years. His reign was marked by corruption and the dispossession of peasants. Much of their property wound up in the hands of American robber barons in the form of oil wells, mines, railroads, and ranches. This precipitated the ouster of Diaz in 1911 and the installment of the democratically elected President Francisco Madero. US Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson helped to organize a coup d’etat in 1913 and the Mexican Revolution hit full stride. In truth, President Madero was a moderate that left many of the power players of the revolution unsatisfied, including the many former Porfirio loyalists that were incorporated into the new government. Historians speculate that his presidency might have been short regardless, but had a foreign power meddled in US affairs in one of its vulnerable moments, the same logic would have applied. In any case, what proceeded were a series of American interventions with various parties in the Mexican Revolution, including backing the side that eventually came out the victor. That side eventually morphed into the Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled Mexico for 71 years in a supposed democracy. During the period this oligarchy was in power and suppressing anti-government movements, it developed close economic, intelligence and military ties with the US. Ultimately it was the earned moniker of the “perfect dictatorship”, made famous by Peruvian writer and journalist Mario Vargas Llosa, and a high-profile assassination that forced the Mexican government to admit international observers into their presidential elections in the mid-90s. In 2000, power at the top finally changed hands but with an ensconced corrupt undergirding still present. As things looked hopeful for Mexico to begin cleaning up its act, the Mexican cartels came into prominence as a vacuum was left after drug routes from South America to the US via the Caribbean were shut down. Now there is a level of violence and corruption that makes the Prohibition Era here in the States look mild. The solution is likely just the same: legalize and regulate. However, that is a difficult remedy to undertake when the most powerful nation in the world is intent on fighting the war on drugs and using its influence to effect and finance Mexico’s drug policies.

Now, some of this might sound like old news or issues that are largely the responsibility of other parties. We could look at El Salvador and Guatemala (not to mention Syria with its refugee situation), the next two most represented countries of origin for undocumented immigrants. The US has treated Mexico with kid gloves in recent history compared to them. Those lines of causality are more direct and tragic. Nevertheless, the ultimate question remains the same: What moral responsibility do the citizens of a democratic country bear for the actions of their compatriots and agents at home and abroad?

True, amnesty as it was done in the 80s will assuredly encourage more immigration, but amnesty enacted with other measures needn’t have the same effect. An expansion of the E-verify program and a requirement for all employers, no matter how small, to use it or risk massive fines would prevent the same fate. We can do what is fair and morally right for those undocumented immigrants who have worked and flourished within our communities while setting new, enforced, and plain-to-see policies and ramifications for newcomers who cross illegally and those who enable them.


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