The old saw is that hard cases make bad law. The case of Jessica Colotl, a 21-year-old college student and illegal Mexican immigrant, is hard in some ways, to be sure. But it might end up making the law better. This is because the same circumstances that make it hard also highlight the ethical issues at the heart of the illegal immigration problem. If we can agree on what is right and wrong concerning Jessica’s situation, a lot of the broader controversy will be clarified.
Colotl is a student at Atlanta’s Kennesaw State University, where she is two semesters from graduation. On March 29, she was pulled over by campus police for “impeding the flow of traffic.” She presented an expired Mexican passport instead of a valid driver’s license, and was arrested and taken to a county jail. There she admitted that she was an illegal immigrant. She has been in the U.S. illegally since her parents brought her here at age 11. Now she faces possible deportation, though this has been deferred, in what can only be called an act of politically motivated mercy, until she has finished college.
Now let’s examine the ethics of her situation, fairly and dispassionately, by answering some questions…
- Is Colotl, made an illegal immigrant by her parents’ act and now an adult in the only country she has known for more than a decade, in an unfortunate situation not entirely of her own making? Yes.
- Does that situation warrant sympathy and empathy? Yes!
- Does her situation warrant suspension of the laws and law enforcement? No. We are all responsible for following the laws of our country or whatever country we happen to be in, regardless of how inconvenient or burdensome doing so may be. Any other approach would lead to anarchy.
- Was Jessica aware that she was breaking the law by being in the country illegally, by driving without a valid license, and by taking tuition benefits from the state of Georgia that were not intended for non-citizens? Yes.
- Does being brought to this country when she was 11 give her a right to break these laws? Of course not.
- Who is responsible for Jessica’s current problems? Her parents, and Jessica herself. Not the U.S. government, which has to have limits on immigration. Not law enforcement officials, whose job it is to enforce the laws she has broken. Not the “messed up system,” as Jessica herself has said. No system that allowed someone like Jessica to benefit from an illegal act of her parents and ten years of living in the country illegally would be less “messed up” than our current system. Such a system would be unjust, unfair, and irresponsible. Jessica’s life is indeed messed up, but this isn’t the system’s fault. It is only the system’s fault that she was allowed to stay here illegally as long as she did.
- Should U.S. Law treat immigrant children brought into the country illegally differently than it currently does? No, no, no. If illegal immigrant children were allowed by law to age into citizenship simply by remaining in the country, then the incentive for parents to sneak their children over the border would be infinitely increased, and their perceived virtue for breaking U. S. laws to better the future of their children would be magnified. The act of illegal immigration would then be seen an act of noble sacrifice, which, under such a system, it would be.
- What would be fair treatment of illegal immigrant children? The only fair treatment that will not encourage more law-breaking is to require them to return to their country of birth as soon as their illegal status is known. Then they can apply for legal immigration status without prejudice.
- Will that be hard on the child? Yes, certainly. Terribly hard. But any other policy undermines the rule of law and the fairness of the immigration system, as well as making any rational immigration control nearly impossible.
- Should the fact that Jessica is doing well in college affect the handling of her case? No. Why should it? She would not be in college at all if she didn’t come here illegally. She cannot be allowed to mitigate her illegal acts after the fact, making use of opportunities that themselves are fruits of the lawbreaking conduct. Accepting this creates a legal and ethical system where wrongful acts can be “undone,” which is a system based on consequentialism.
- Should the fact that she was only discovered after a traffic stop matter? No. Why should it? She has been breaking the law for over a decade. She was breaking the law by driving without a license. Now we know she’s an illegal alien, meaning that she doesn’t belong here. She should be deported.
- Should there be a legal path for illegal immigrants to get college educations in the U.S.? What a bizarre concept! This is called “rewarding law-breakers.” No legal immigrant or citizen of the U.S. should ever be displaced by illegal immigrants, no matter how young they were when they were brought into the country, no matter what their talents or how intense their “dreams.” Not one taxpayer penny should be spent to educate an illegal student. Every benefit they derive as the result of their illegal activities is, or should be regarded as, unethically obtained.
You know what? It’s not really such a hard case after all.