“They broke the law.” This preceding statement is how we excuse a grand amount of injustice in this country. Recently, it’s been widely used as a mantra for people who support deportation of undocumented immigrants and need a good excuse for dragging people from their homes and splitting up families. “If you enter this country as a criminal” so goes the logic, “what right do you have to be here? America doesn’t need anymore criminals!” Those who argue this way often present themselves as being patriots and defenders of American values and tradition. I say their patriotism is a false patriotism, an ignorant patriotism, an unearned patriotism.
For better and worse, America has always been a nation of criminals. The story of America begins with an act of mass criminality, as the burdens of British rule drove many colonists into treasonous insurrection, a crime still punishable by death. America’s colonial criminality is far from exhausted by acts of political rebellion though. Before Australia became Britain’s prime penal colony they sent thousands of their convicts to American shores. Then there are the criminals who showed up to America’s ports voluntarily, in pirate ships. Colonial cities were seen as a safe haven for the libertine proclivities of the 19th century’s most notorious, seafaring criminal class.
Criminal culture would continue to be tied to America’s national identity long after the revolution. American iconography is filled with the reverence we have for all manner of crooks and scofflaws. The Western movie genre, who can think of anything more quintessentially American, romanticized the lawless conditions and antiheroes of the frontier in the 19th century. When alcohol prohibition became constitutional law in the 20s Americans of all classes and ethnicities refused to obey, and either became or gave business to gangsters and moonshiners. Italian Americans were generalized by law and order propagandists as inextricably tied to the Mafia culture. While untrue, there’s no doubt Italians and other immigrant minorities relied a great deal on organized and unorganized crime to enrich themselves. Yet this fact has not led the national zeitgeist to be revolted by such criminal behavior. They have been enshrined in our art and national imagination as well for their heedless and rebellious pursuits, even when they’re clearly ignoble.
I’d be remiss if I did not mention just how mutually important America’s past and the practice of civil disobedience. Henry David Thoreau, that rustic American literary icon, coined the term and advanced it to the fore of radical political thought. American abolitionists and those who struggled throughout our history for freedom and civil rights advanced this philosophy into the streets and on to underground railroads. Again and again those Americans we most revere for their moral vision and courage wound up in handcuffs and jail cells.
What good is a history lesson though? Some will certainly say of these preceding examples that they can be looked at with less severity because, after all, the past is the past. Should we tolerate crime simply because our ancestors were proficient criminals? It’s at this point I’d like to direct you to America’s contemporary crime wave. No, I am not referring to this presidential administration’s false claims that violent crime is skyrocketing, or that police are being targeted more and more. What I am referring to is our legal system, which has continually become more of a producer of criminal activity than an adjudicator of it. We live in a country where the list of illegal activities one could possibly engage in is literally innumerable. Seriously, the federal government cannot come close to accounting for all of the legal restrictions it imposes on us. The truth is, no presumably innocent person in this country knows whether or not they are themselves a criminal, but they probably are. Rather than ask yourselves “Have I committed a crime?” you should ask “What crimes have I committed?”. Once you’ve discovered or failed to discover the answer to this question, ask yourself if you should be taken away from your family and community because of your criminal behavior.
Even our own politicians can’t help but commit crimes. While there are many serious and heinous examples throughout our history I could point to, let’s take the recent adventures of former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. While speaking with a Russian ambassador about America’s sanctioning of Russia Mike Flynn violated a law established in 1799 known as the Logan Act. He’s not expected to be prosecuted for it, because no one ever is. Public officials generally remain unaccountable for far more grave violations of the law, including trampling on the Constitution, without consequence. Flynn committed a crime he may not even have known about at the time though, as is clearly becoming an American tradition.
America’s taken the lead on crime in world statistics with its highly publicized and record breaking prison population. Over 2 million people live under the authority of the American penal system. More Americans are beginning to see this for the unacceptably punitive and inefficient system of justice that it is. Yet immigrants, whether documented or not, are under represented in national crime statistics. Those born and raised here are more likely to have engaged in criminal activity than those who migrated according to decades-worth of research. We’re quickly learning the valuable lesson that simply displacing criminals from their home and putting them in prison cells or in an ICE van will not solve the serious concerns of those who are victims to violent crimes we all condemn.
Let’s get to the core of the issue in light of all this. It’s true that undocumented immigrants either entered this country illegally or have overstayed their legally permitted welcome. This is criminal behavior. That much we know. What we don’t know yet from this is how to respond. It’s true that deporting undocumented immigrants is legal. What those who rely on this fact to justify deportation do not acknowledge is that not pursuing those methods is also legal, as is granting them amnesty. What good comes from the first tactic? Assuming it does rid our population of some dangerous individuals, should that really be our standard of justice? Purging criminals from society does not have a good track record of succeeding in freeing us from violent individuals. Rather, it enables them. Also, as stated before, the vast majority of those who criminally enter our country do not go on to commit crimes.
To understand my above point you need look no further than an egregious ICE sting this week that targeted a woman seeking domestic abuse charges against her partner. Was this justice served, or is it yet another cruel act committed against a vulnerable member of an American community? We are enabling abuse and turning away victims, empowering federal agents to do things to people we would never accept be done to us, or to anyone, all because they’re wearing the right badge and holding the right guns. Every day people like this woman are unable to protect themselves without being subject to legal harassment. If these people are criminals, then damn the law.
Do away now with this inquisition of foreigners who haven’t traveled to our country with a permission slip. You are not standing against violence in the streets. You are cheering it on as it breaks down the doors and destroys the families of your neighbors. You are not preserving the sanctity of the law, because in a country where there is no perceptible bounds to the legal code there is no way you can act to preserve it. To the law we are all its violators. You are not defending your beloved nation’s values. Those who come here to better their lives are struggling taking part in an American tradition you will never have to endure. Your patriotism is only a love for the callous past of your country, a past that gave way to the fact that this is and will always be a nation of immigrants. The only difference between you and a border crosser is that you have the privilege to live without knowledge of the crimes you commit. They knew what they were up against, the danger and stigma they were exposing themselves too. Their defiance is American defiance. Their struggle is American struggle. Their criminality is American criminality, and a criminal America is the only one worth wanting.