Sunday, March 26, 2017

And the Law Won

Instead of changing in the couple’s favor, the laws evolved to make her husband more vulnerable to deportation, a development the Beristains never expected. She told the Tribune that Trump’s deportation measures — the one’s she thought her family would be exempt from — are harming “regular people.”

“I understand when you’re a criminal and you do bad things, you shouldn’t be in the country,” Helen told the CBS TV affiliate WSBT. “But when you’re a good citizen and you support and you help and you pay taxes and you give jobs to people, you should be able to stay.”
Trump supporter thought president would only deport ‘bad hombres.’ Instead, her husband is being deported.
Helen Beristain has already received a lot of criticism over this situation, from both the Left and the Right. (Of course, they are attacking her for different reasons, but neither side seems inclined to hold their fire.) So I'm not intending this post to be a direct criticism of her, myself. Rather, I'd like to point to an aspect of this situation that I find instructional.

Roberto Beristain, for all that he might be a wonderful person is, by definition, not a good citizen. And that's because he's in the United States illegally. And there was nothing in President Trump's rhetoric, back when he was still Candidate Trump, that pointed to the idea that simply because Mr. Beristain was a good person - that he supported and he helped and he paid taxes and he gave jobs to people - that he would be converted into someone who is in the country legally.
Helen Beristain, his wife, says she supported President Trump but feels his policies shouldn’t apply to her husband because he owns a business and pays taxes.
Trump Supporter’s Husband Faces Deportation
While this is sometimes the way that laws work, when we refer to "the Rule of Law," this generally isn't what we have in mind. The Washington Post headline says that Mrs. Beristain believed that President Trump would only deport "bad hombres." And while it's an understandable sentiment, it points to a fundamental understanding of the nature and the purpose of laws.

Now, I'm not going to claim to be an expert on immigration. That's a body of law that, like many of them, takes quite a bit of time and effort to really understand. But, to the best of my knowledge, the United States does not have a policy that accepts all potential immigrants, with the exception of who are criminals or have been adjudged to have done "bad things." Rather, one has to apply for entry and be accepted. The original intent behind the United States' immigration policies may or may not be valid, depending on how one views the nation's motives when they were first enacted or how strong a position one takes on the idea that people should have unfettered rights to move about in the service of bettering themselves. But even if we ascribe a desire to apply a filter to would-be Americans, and the rules are designed to let in the good, and keep out the bad, there is a process by which the government determines who should be allowed to stay, and who should have to return to their home nation. And it's not based on the personal sentiments of private citizens, whether they be immigration activists, low wage employers or the spouses of those who didn't make the cut.

Generally speaking, the purpose of law is to be a weapon against people who behave in ways that we find to be unacceptable. In order to live in communities, human beings have evolved the capacity to create and manage remarkably complex series of rules and strictures that govern personal behavior and mandate sanctions for violations. But part of what allows rules to work is that they have to be (reasonably) consistent, and in a society like ours, where the body of law is simply too large for any one person to commit all it to memory, it has to be applied in accordance with how it is recorded.

The problem that many people had with President Obama's actions on immigration was that it didn't square with their personal desires on how the law should be applied. For critics on the Left, the President's stepped up enforcement actions were an affront to their ideas that people who were seeking better lives should be allowed to do so without interference. For critics on the Right, the loopholes that the President opened in the rules were proof that he wasn't serious about enforcing laws that they saw as essential for the security of the nation. But both sides seemed completely disinterested in examining the purpose and the wording of the laws under consideration and asking it were time for changes. My personal understanding of the reason for this is that it allows both sides to retain laws on the books for the purpose of being weapons against those they don't like - a broadly-written law that is ignored when convenient can be just as easily recalled for convenience. But that's likely an overly cynical way of looking at it. Rather, I think that most people are like Mrs. Beristain - they believe that the intent of a given law roughly matches what they would intend with it - in this case that the objectively criminal and the subjectively bad would be barred from entering the country, and we would simply look the other way for the "good" immigrants. (And despite the fact that "good" and "bad" are perhaps the most subjective determinations that we ever make, that people would generally agree on who belongs in which category.) But in the end, that creates a legal structure that lends itself to either being arbitrary or to being sectarian and prejudicial; and American history is rife with heartbreaking stories of how that wound up allowing the law to become a cover for abuse.

In a nation divided by competing political and moral ideologies, a body of law that is to everyone's liking is probably beyond our ability to put into place. But that doesn't absolve us of the responsibility to cultivate a high-level understanding what our currently laws are and understand what provisions are encoded into them, and what informal and unwritten modifications have come about as a result of custom, resources or simple desire. And if we understand the law as it is practiced to be superior to the law as it is written, lobby intentionally for those changes, rather than simply assuming that they will always stand.

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