The cartoon showed the newspaper man coming into his boss' office, holding out the newspaper whose giant headline read "Trump to enforce the law" followed by his concern "We're worried this headline might be too disturbing for our readers" On the surface you could say, "Sure, that's right. He's just enforcing the laws that we've had for a long while, just making sure that we're following our own rules and being fair. People shouldn't be allowed to cut in front of the line. The law's the law. We're a nation of laws. We live by the rule of law."
I've traveled a long way with the law over my sixty-six years, trying to understand its purpose and place. My father was an international trade lawyer who saw the law as a way to ensure fairness amongst nations in their exchange of goods and labor. I went to Catholic schools through high school, including grades seven thru twelve at a small Benedictine monastery school that spent lots of hours on the old and new testaments, teasing out the hard core essence of the scriptures, the law and Jesus' teachings. The civil rights movement was at full throttle in my adolescence; I saw images night after night of people "violating" the laws of their states that segregated the races, favoring whites again and again with racial prejudice built into the law. I saw police enforcing the law by beating non-violent men, women and children who marched and protested against that discrimination. I saw national guard come and protect black students enrolling in Southern universities.
I turned eighteen during the Vietnam War, the first year that the draft went to a lottery system, where young men were forced by law to serve their country in a war of dubious international legality and even less moral legitimacy, as we killed millions of Vietnamese, made millions refugees and sprayed an entire nation with terrible poisons that caused millions of children to have severe birth defects and is still affecting many newborns forty years later. Nearly sixty thousand Americans lost their lives and hundreds of thousands were injured. I saw priests illegally burning thousands of draft records to thwart forced inscription, saw them stand in prayer as the police came and arrested them and carried them off to prison.
The law is not a static thing nor an immutable truth. It reflects, at best, our current attempts to implement social fairness and civil justice. As history has shown again and again, however, the law is imperfect and always changing, shifting with our hopes and fears. It is not always an ascending path toward our better natures, but struggles onward in fits and starts. My hope is with Martin Luther King that the long arc of history bends toward justice, but we have seen it codify some of the worst in ourselves as humans as well.
What remains true in every generation is that we must take responsibility for the laws of our times, not simply follow them. We must also remember that the law is generally our lowest common denominator, not the emblem or verdict of our deeper selves. As a "nation based on the rule of law", her citizens must always be pushing the law to defend the most vulnerable and to limit the law's easy entanglement with the rights of the powerful and the ascendance of the majority. Jesus struggled mightily with law in his time, too. He was in constant strife with the letter of the law and the absence of its spirit. He helped us understand that human law has a deeper, truer voice brooding beneath it, a compassionate and determined spirit that must move human law forward to be more inclusive, more forgiving and more generous.
Our "lawmakers", have struggled with immigration issues for years, aware that the "law" hasn't provided a humane, compassionate, or fair course of action. Partisan divisions and posturing have kept agreements from being reached which offered a path to citizenship, safety for all, and some recognition of the human costs of borders, economics, wars, and nations. Immigration, "legal" and "illegal" is a human problem and a complex one. Who has fled here because of the dictators we have supported? Who has come, pressed into low-paid work harvesting our food or cleaning our homes and hotels, often because our own economic system has brought theirs to its knees? Who are refugees from the wars we have waged or supported in their homelands?
In 1989 our family was privileged to host two refugees from El Salvador who had fled the violence in their country to seek safety in the States. At the time, the US was pouring a billion dollars a year into the country, mostly in military aid, that was helping prop up a right-wing government powered by the "quatorze", the fourteen families that held most of the country's wealth and power, a war against its own people. As critics, including nuns and priests, journalists and even the Archbishop of El Salvador were assassinated, the US continued to keep the money spigots open, afraid of possible communist advances. Jorge and Orlando were from very different parts of the country. Jorge, a campesino in the mountains, had been stopped by the military after a trip to the nearest town to buy seeds. All young men were suspected of being sympathetic to the opposition. Jorge was stopped and held by the military for interrogation, was beaten and threatened with torture. Finally "bought" from imprisonment by an uncle, he left his farm and all he knew to flee through Mexico to the border, where he was detained. Because of our government's support for the Salvadoran government, the US refused to grant asylum to Salvadorans. A human rights group found Jorge in a large US detention camp and helped him apply for asylum in Canada. They "bonded" him out and our family hosted him while he waited the three months it took Canada to do its background and security checks. He eventually went to Canada and became a permanent resident. Orlando grew up in the city and had been "pressed" into the military several times, starting before he was seventeen. His mother managed to bribe officials to get him home each time. Orlando was from a poor family, had some high school education, and had worked from early age with a local mechanic on cars and motorcycles. His last forced induction into the army had come with beatings and threats. After his mother bought him out one last time, he fled the country and, similar to Jorge, was imprisoned, yet again, on entering the US.
While not every story of immigration shares the same urgency and legitimacy, every story involves real people leaving the lands and homes they know and risking life, limb and security to get to the US. "President enforces the law" is a cheap white-wash of the deep failure of our own lawmakers to tackle a complex issue and address the broad social, economic and foreign policy issues that have been integral to the mass migration of peoples. It is a failure that erodes our humanity and purpose, leaving eleven million people in a limbo of danger, fear and uncertainty and leaving a nation in moral bankruptcy and increasing disconnection from the community of nations. The "immigration problem" is not, fundamentally, a law enforcement issue but a complex social issue that needs lawmakers to come together to give a pathway to citizenship to those who are here "illegally".