Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Letter to Louisiana Legislators on the Immigration Bills

Here's a version of a letter that I've been sending around to Louisiana legislators whom I think can be persuaded to oppose HB 25, HB 1357, and HB 1358. These three bills seek to force an unfunded mandate on local law enforcement officers to become immigration authorities and to criminalize charity. The following letter comes at the subject from the perspective of a Christian, so it might not be best suited for your own point of view; but there is a secular humanitarian argument along similar lines that can be made as well. If you find it helpful, please feel free to use my letter as a guide to writing your own letter to your Louisiana legislators.

Dear Rep. _____________ :

I am writing to you not only as a constituent, but also as a person committed to humanitarian and just solutions to problems, as someone who is a Catholic Christian, and as a concerned fellow citizen of Louisiana. So, I am making a personal appeal to you. I urge you to oppose in strong and unequivocal terms the poorly-crafted, mean-spirited, and dehumanizing legislation (HB 25, HB 1357, and HB 1358) proposed by Rep. Brett Geymann against undocumented migrants and those who would be kind to them and seek to serve them. In fact, I urge you to be a vocal and outspoken leader in opposing these measures. As I see it, these legislative bills as they are written are an affront to basic human decency. Not only do they dehumanize other people for no reason other than crossing an imaginary line drawn on God's earth in order to survive and provide for their families, but, worse, they also criminalize individual acts of charity by those who would be good samaritans and servants to the marginalized and unwanted. And it goes without saying that they impose an unfunded mandate on local law enforcement to carry out what is essentially a federal reponsibility.

The Times-Picayune editorialized that these legislative initiatives seek to "codify bigotry." I agree with the Times-Picayune. The Catholic Church strongly opposes such kinds of measures to deal with the issue of illegal immigration as inconsistent with God's call to care and serve others, especially the marginalized among us. I agree with the Catholic Church. After reviewing these pieces of legislation, I can find nothing to explain the motivation for them as they are written beyond a pure, mean-spirited, and dehumanizing bigotry. Rep. Geymann should be ashamed of these pieces of legislation; and any decent human being should be willing to address the concerns surrounding the illegal immigration issue without resorting to such draconian and unenforceable and morally wrong measures.

As a lay affiliate of the Catholic Maryknoll Religious Order, I am a strong advocate and practitioner of Catholic Social Justice teaching. And, I am committed to being a Christian servant to others without preconditions on who those "others" are. Everything that I am and believe screams out against these reprehensible pieces of legislation sponsored by Rep. Geymann.

I agree that a country has a right to police its borders, but it can be done in a humane way that is consistent with the best values of our society, and which does not interject the meanspirited and (as I see it) hateful attitudes so often levied against some of the hardest-working and nicest people in the world. Furthermore, what's even more distressing to me is that these pieces of legislation seek not only to curb illegal immigration, but also to criminalize individual acts of charity.

We Christians are told that individual acts of kindness and mercy towards the less fortunate, regardless of their circumstances or immigration status, are acts that help get us into heaven. Yet the irony is that this legislation as written intentionally threatens people who engage in such acts with time in prison. Think of it this way: God promises us a heavenly reward for acts of kindness and mercy towards our neighbors, and yet Rep. Geymann promises us prison time for it. How does any Christian square that? How can anybody with a conscience, no matter what his or her opinions are on the illegal immigration question, square that?

I trust you to do what is morally right here, even if you find it to be politically unpopular. We who are advocates of the Social Justice Mission of the Catholic faith are watching this issue very closely. Please don't let us down. Step up and fight against criminalizing kindness!

Sincerely,
If you are unsure who your legislator is, you can go to this website and type in your home address, which will pull up your legislator and his/her contact information. Please don't delay in writing your legislator. According to my reading of the Louisiana Legislature's schedule, these bills are headed for a vote this coming Tuesday, May 13. So, there's no time to lose.

I wrote to my legislator, Walker Hines, some time last week asking him to oppose these bills. He wrote a very nice reply back to me almost immediately that was very encouraging. He made no explicit promises, but I really think he will oppose these bills unless they are amended. We shall see. However, Rep. Hines also informed me that he has received a number of calls/emails from constituents in support of these bills. And he says that other legislators have as well. He suspects that they're likely going to pass in the House rather easily. But it's still not too late to derail this legislation. The key is to try to convince legislators that what is flawed about these bills is that they seek to address the problem of undocumented migrants by targeting us citizens with punitive action for nothing more than being good neighbors. This is a wrong-headed way to address the problem. One can be very much in favor of stricter enforcement of immigration laws and for securing the border and still be opposed to these bills on moral grounds. We citizens, by being good samaritans, are NOT the problem here. We shouldn't be targeted as potential criminals for being good neighbors, which is what these bills do. If you want tougher border security and stricter enforcement of immigration laws, tell your legislators that, but tell them also that the three bills currently being considered are not the right and moral way of going about solving the problem.

7 comments:

Eric said...

Question: Is it ever OK, in your opinion, for the government to criminalize charity towards a group of people?

Huck said...

Eric - I smell a trick question. If you call giving a cash donation to a suspect "charitable organization" that's really a front for terrorist activity, maybe (and I say maybe) one can make a case. But, then, I wouldn't call such activity, done knowingly, as a case of good samaritan "charity." And even still, I'm not so sure it's the government's responsibility to be dictating the charitable causes I contribute my time, efforts, and resources to. And, at the very least, we should distinguish between questionable acts of "charity" from the good neighborly actions that are subject to criminalization in these bills. If the intent of this legislation is not to criminalize good samaritan types of behavior, then there are ways to write it that will make its intent clear. It seems patently obvious to any honest observer that this particular legislation is intended to deal with the illegal immigration problem by making individual citizens afraid, via threats of hefty fines and/or jail time, of even doing simple good deeds. If you don't see that in this legislation, Eric, then you're being a bit wilfully blind.

I know you tended to support such measures when they came up in Oklahoma; but I'm going to fight this tooth-and-nail here in Louisiana, even if it means going in front of the Louisiana legislature to testify, because I believe that it is not the right and moral way to deal with the problem of illegal immigration, regardless of the understandable frustrations in the enforcement of our immigration laws that might motivate such draconian measures.

Eric said...

Huck, yeah, I am horrible at disguising trick questions! Even my 6-year-old daughter can sniff me out.

A more direct line of questioning might go like this: If someone knowingly gives charity to an illegal immigrant, aren't they complicit in helping that immigrant to continue to break our laws? In other similar legal contexts, wouldn't they become an accomplice of sorts? How is this different?

Also, why should it be OK to give charity to an illegal immigrant, but not acceptable to actually give them a job where they can earn their own sustenance? Should employers enjoy the same protection from legal action that you would assign to charitable individuals and organizations? If not, by what standard? Would you consider it equally draconian to keep a hungry and willing human being from engaging in productive labor in order to earn their bread, regardless of the legality of their presence here? Surely it is better to work for your bread than to depend on charity, but why should one be legal and the other not?

I don't have a problem with making life increasingly uncomfortable for illegal immigrants and those who directly enable their ability to stay here. I'd like to see many more immigrants able to come and work here legally, but that is a completely seperate issue. The bottom line for me is that these types of laws are actually fairly lighthanded (compared to alternatives such as actively seeking, detaining, and deporting illegals) and have, thus far, proven to be very effective in convincing large numbers of illegal immigrants to willingly pack up and leave the communities and states where the laws are enacted.

Huck said...

A more direct line of questioning might go like this: If someone knowingly gives charity to an illegal immigrant, aren't they complicit in helping that immigrant to continue to break our laws? In other similar legal contexts, wouldn't they become an accomplice of sorts? How is this different?

Fair questions. My answer would consist in taking issue with your supposition that simply by being in the U.S. without documentation an immigrant is always breaking the law. The law being violated had to do with a one-time crossing over the border, which someone giving an illegal immigrant a ride to church had no direct involvement in at all. Do you really consider giving an illegal immigrant a ride to church aiding and abetting criminal activity? By that measure, any good deed done to law breakers should be subject to the same punishments. Should I be charged with aiding and abetting someone I know to be a pot-smoker or a crackhead because I gave him a ride to church one Sunday, or brought him to the hospital? What's the difference there? I guess it depends on how you want to interpret the "crime" of being an illegal immigrant and what it means to aid and abet this "crime." I would be no more an accomplice in the "crime" of illegal immigration by bringing an illegal immigrant to a pre-natal appointment at the local clinic than I would be an accomplice in the "crime" of drug-trafficking by bringing a crack addict to a pre-natal appointment at the local clinic.

Also, why should it be OK to give charity to an illegal immigrant, but not acceptable to actually give them a job where they can earn their own sustenance?

Actually, you're right. But here's the difference: I don't think it is acceptable to not give them a job where they can earn their own sustenance. No let me ask you to substitute "illegal immigrant" with "homeless person" and tell me what your answer would be. This is where the rub is: charity is not conditioned on one's employability or any other factor.

Should employers enjoy the same protection from legal action that you would assign to charitable individuals and organizations? If not, by what standard?

Personally, I think employers should be able to hire any person who can do the job as long as taxes are paid on the labor and the income. But that's me. If I were someone who would make a distinction, my argument would be that an individual act of charity is not the same as providing employment. One involves a contractual exchange that demands reciprocity from which the government extracts a bit of compensation via taxes while the other is simply a good deed without the expectation of reciprocity.

Would you consider it equally draconian to keep a hungry and willing human being from engaging in productive labor in order to earn their bread, regardless of the legality of their presence here? Surely it is better to work for your bread than to depend on charity, but why should one be legal and the other not?

Yes, I do consider it draconian. But just because we legislate one measure of draconian policy doesn't make it either right to extend such draconian measures to other aspects of our lives, nor does it mean we should continue to behave similarly.

You say that you have no problem with making illegal immigrants more uncomfortable, but my problem is that this legislation is designed to make us citizens uncomfortable. It is stretching out the strong arm of the state towards individual citizens, and threatening our charitable nature with punitive sanctions, in order to resolve the illegal immigration problem. Frankly, Eric, I would have thought that you, as a libertarian, would be worried about the state doing anything to use its powers to make citizens engaging in no less than good samaritan behavior afraid of the long arm of big brother precisely for their good samaritan behavior.

Eric said...

"My answer would consist in taking issue with your supposition that simply by being in the U.S. without documentation an immigrant is always breaking the law."

I do suppose that to be the case, you are right, and I think it is a logical argument. If somebody enters your house without your permission, they are an illegal intruder for as long as they remain on your property, even if they don't steal anything or cause you any other kind of harm. This is the case with illegal immigrants, they are intruding on US soil in spite of laws forbidding them to do so, and the only way for them to quit breaking the law is to get permission from the government to be here, or to leave.

"Should I be charged with aiding and abetting someone I know to be a pot-smoker or a crackhead because I gave him a ride to church one Sunday, or brought him to the hospital?"

Well, you certainly can be if you get detained by the police while giving them a ride and they have pot or crack in their posession. The circumstances of their transport matter very little to the law, and there are good reasons for that. Maybe somebody who is actually driving a crack dealer to a drug transaction on a Wednesday evening gets pulled over and escapes charges by claiming he was taking them to church. Ultimately, you take some risks when you help out someone who is a habitual law breaker.

"Now let me ask you to substitute "illegal immigrant" with "homeless person" and tell me what your answer would be."

Yes, you sould give a homeless person a job if they are the best willing and capable applicant, and are legally eligible to work in this country.

"Personally, I think employers should be able to hire any person who can do the job as long as taxes are paid on the labor and the income."

We are actually largely in agreement here, but when it comes to hiring people who are not US citizens, national security (and even national sovereignty) demands that we have a system for tracking and controlling the influx of these people. Our current system is horrible, but that doesn't mean it is OK to simply ignore it.

"You say that you have no problem with making illegal immigrants more uncomfortable, but my problem is that this legislation is designed to make us citizens uncomfortable."

Actually, I included people who "directly enable their ability to stay here." That would include employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, and people who give them money, food, or rides to church knowing full well they are here illegally.
Do I think we should throw people in jail for helping them? No. But a fine? Doesn't seem the least bit unreasonable to me.

" Frankly, Eric, I would have thought that you, as a libertarian, would be worried about the state doing anything to use its powers to make citizens engaging in no less than good samaritan behavior afraid of the long arm of big brother precisely for their good samaritan behavior."

The libertarian in me wants the state to fix this problem by making our immigration process more open and flexible... not to fix it by encouraging illegal immigrants to continue breaking the law and encouraging US citizens to give them a pat on the back and free lunch for doing so.

And really, this is not a big issue to me either way. It wouldn't sway my support if a politician I otherwise endorsed decided to vote against this kind of measure. I think immigration is an issue we need to deal with, but it is small potatoes compared to runaway spending, ludicrously high tax rates, and unconstitutional ponzi schemes packaged as entilement programs.

But, unlike many issues, the immigration issue is one where the other side really confuses me with their thinking. I understand employers who want cheap immigrant labor who they are often able to shielf from payroll taxes... but I come up stymied when trying to understand why anyone else advocates (or is even willing to put up with) unchecked and undocumented immigration.

Huck said...

"but I come up stymied when trying to understand why anyone else advocates (or is even willing to put up with) unchecked and undocumented immigration."

I would suggest that you are stymied because you think of illegal immigrants as permanent criminals simply by virtue of having entered the country without documentation or permission to do so. Most of us just see them as people making a positive contribution to our economy and to our overall well-being. It's hard for someone like me to vilify such people as criminals. I can support monitoring and documenting immigration, but what I don't understand is the meanness that often comes along with efforts to do so. There are ways to police our borders that can be as effective, if not more effective, than targeting my desires to help a fellow human being and threatening me with punitive sanctions including jail time. My solution to the problem would be to let the labor market work, to liberalize immigration law, and to permit as many immigrants to come into this country to work as long as there is demand for them. Every illegal immigrant that I have come into contact with would pay thousands of dollars to gain legal access to the US labor market (in fact they already pay thousands of dollars to access it illegally). The problem is not with the immigrants' unwillingness to abide by the rules (and 99.999% of illegal immigrants are model "citizens" while here), it is that government, largely for reasons of xenophobia, seeks to stymie the labor market, thus inducing an underground illegal immigration problem, instead of managing and monitoring a liberal free market in global labor.

What stymies me, Eric, is your insistence that you would like to see a more liberalized immigration system, but yet you support legislation that goes in exactly the opposite direction. What you should be advocating for is not such bills as are being proposed here in Louisiana, but rather bills that would seek to legalize migrants and liberalize immigration policy instead of criminalizing good samaritan behavior and imposing even more restrictive immigration policy.

Cynthia said...

"I don't have a problem with making life increasingly uncomfortable for illegal immigrants and those who directly enable their ability to stay here. I'd like to see many more immigrants able to come and work here legally, but that is a completely seperate issue."

Ridiculously contradictory and disgustingly offensive. I guess I'll add that I'd like to make it increasingly uncomfortable for citizens of the United States who mindlessly obey inane laws like lemmings jumping off cliffs.