These words proved prescient. Several months later, the journalist Jose Antonio Vargas a four-page story in the New York Times in which he outed himself as an illegal immigrant. He was born in the Philippines, and came to the United States in 1993, at the age of 12, to live with his grandparents in California. His mother “wanted to give [him] a better life.” He “quickly grew to love [his] new home, family, and culture.”
A few years later, he got the first intimation of his status:
I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore.
By coming out publicly, Jose Antonio Vargas and many others have transformed the lawbreaking of illegal immigration into something heroic—civil disobedience. They have become, to adapt an exquisite phrase from writer David Bentley Hart, “a face for the faceless.”
By coming out publicly, Jose Antonio Vargas and many others have transformed the lawbreaking of illegal immigration into something heroic—civil disobedience.Hart, describing the impact of Christianity on the culture of the late Roman Empire, writes that “to the literate classes of late antiquity … a rustic could not possibly have been a worthy object of a well-bred man’s sympathy,” and that the story, in the Gospels, of Peter weeping after he denied Christ on the eve of the Crucifixion, would “likely have seemed like an aesthetic mistake.” By contrast, in the Gospels and other Christian texts, “we see something beginning to emerge from darkness into full visibility, arguably for the first time in history: the human person as such, invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity, and possessed of an infinite value.” (Hart, p. 167)
To feel human sympathy for someone makes it much harder to abuse, exploit, or brutalize them, or in general, to do unto them as one would not have others do unto oneself. Over time, though sometimes with terrible tardiness, this new appreciation of human dignity has altered man and society, making charity more urgent and beautiful, making slavery first anomalous and then untenable.
Not that, even two millennia later, individuals and societies have escaped the tendency to ignore and offend the human dignity of their fellows. But culture, religious and secular, perennially reminds us that it is there. Vargas is a case in point. His writing feels ordinary rather than brilliant. He seems like the guy next door: we know him, we like him, we root for him. By contrast, the law, we do not know. Sometimes, the law retains a sinisterly impersonal facelessness, as is highlighted by the end of Vargas’s story:
Interestingly, Obama’s speech contained what sounded like a shout-out to Vargas and others who have come out:
The Ethics and Impact of Civil Disobedience
President Obama is not the first to be ravished by the moral beauty of civil disobedience. Many ancient philosophical schools, from stoics to skeptics to Platonists, revered Socrates for his brave defiance of an Athenian jury that put him to death for refusing to abandon his custom of subversive moral inquiry in pursuit of truth, which had irritated Athens’s complacent bourgeoisie.
The absence of a way for him to become legal seems to lack the consent of the governed.Christians have long revered the prophet Daniel, as well as thousands of martyrs, who openly and bravely defied the commands of secular rulers, risking and often losing their lives, and whose heroic example catalyzed the conversion of the Roman Empire.
More recently, civil disobedience by Rosa Parks (sitting in the front of the bus), Martin Luther King (protest marches), and many others brought about the purge from American society of the long-standing blight of institutional racism, while civil disobedience (a strike) by the Solidarity movement in Poland helped bring about the fall of communism.
Successful civil disobedience movements are among the most exhilarating, edifying, and transformative chapters in history. We may be witnessing the beginnings of one now. If, as Obama’s speech suggests, Vargas and other illegal immigrants who have outed themselves recently inspired the administration’s new policy, they have had an impact out of all proportion to their numbers or position. This is the typical effect of civil disobedience, from the early Christian martyrs to Gandhi to Rosa Parks.
Rule of Law Turned on Its Head
In some quarters, Obama’s announcement has been greeted with outrage. Thus, Andrew McCarthy :
Law in Vargas’s life story has been the opposite of law.There is a logic within this argument, however, that is important to understand. Immigration restrictionism, carried to its logical extreme, must strip away from the concept of national identity everything that makes it human—the jokes, the food and fun and faith, the affection for places and festivals, peculiarities of speech and manners, the distinctive virtues and loyalties, the community and the economy, the custom and tradition—leaving nothing but a legal construct, the paper.
The case of Jose Antonio Vargas drives home the strangeness of the “rule of law”-based claims that critics of Obama’s semi-amnesty are making. For 15 years, Vargas was living in the United States in vague fear of having his life totally disrupted by deportation, for something he did before the age of accountability, without knowing it was illegal. That situation, apparently, was consistent with the rule of law.
Then, for a year, Vargas had made his status public, was writing about it in major national publications, traveling the country, meeting with people, organizing a political movement—but was not deported. Was that situation, too, consistent with the rule of law? If not, what exactly is the government supposed to do about it? Search the media regularly for confessions of illegal immigrant status?
Vargas calls the offices of ICE and tells them he is an illegal immigrant and asks them whether he will be deported. Answer: “We do not comment on specific cases.” Is it consistent with the rule of law if they answer evasively, but not if they give a straightforward “no?”
He has become ‘a walking conversation that most people are uncomfortable having.’What we see here is the concept of rule of law, turned on its head. As Friedrich Hayek understood, law should be embedded in tradition and the customs of the people, and thereby able to create security and certainty, enabling people to plan for the future. Everything about Vargas’s life story shows that the American people, when confronted with the facts, accept him, accept his presence. Many take it for granted that there is a path to legal permanent residence for him. They ask him why he hasn’t become legal. The absence of a way for him to become legal seems to lack the consent of the governed.
Law in Vargas’s life story has been the opposite of law: Arbitrary, random, a source of insecurity, faceless and unaccountable, making long-term planning impossible. Obama’s semi-amnesty makes the law a little bit more lawlike: More predictable, more transparent, more consistent with the customs and traditions of the people. Critics of the move are demanding, in the name of the rule of law, not that the law be enforced to the letter in all cases, but that it remain arbitrary and unpredictable, that it keep people guessing.
When law becomes unmoored from justice, it begins to cease to be law. When the law prohibits what is not in any way morally wrong, what on the contrary may be morally good or even obligatory—Jose Antonio Vargas’s mother trying to get a better life for her son, a father trying to support his family in the only way he can, a person fleeing political or religious persecution for a place where he or she can live in truth—situations will arise in which conscience allows or requires people to disobey it, and the alliance between the coercive power of the state and the moral community of the people, in which the legitimacy of the law consists, is first strained, and then severed.
The Politics and the Pulpit
Successful civil disobedience movements are among the most exhilarating, edifying, and transformative chapters in history. We may be witnessing the beginnings of one now.
Obama might also make political progress in churches. Churchgoers are among the Republican Party’s most stalwart supporters, and Obama has alienated many of them with his support for gay marriage and his assault on religious freedom in the form of a contraception coverage mandate under the healthcare law.
On immigration, though, the churches are decidedly to the left of center. For example, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops comprehensive immigration reform, as do .
In taking such stances, church leaders often act contrary to the wishes of a lot of their members. But it is not, in the end, to their members that church leaders believe themselves to be primarily answerable.
In Mosaic law, the resident alien is mentioned again and again, alongside orphans and widows, as the object of God’s particular concern:
As welcome as the new forbearance on immigration is, it must tend to heighten the contradictions in existing immigration law. For as Mickey Kaus, a prominent foe of immigration, , there are:
Immigration restrictionism, carried to its logical extreme, must strip away from the concept of national identity everything that makes it human.Certainly, enforcement can have some effect. The federal government has intensified its efforts to control the border in recent years, and net illegal immigration from Mexico is now thought to have fallen to . That’s net immigration, though—some are still coming, as others go back. Meanwhile, there are still an estimated 11 million or so illegal immigrants living in the United States. To regularize the status of these will attract others. Slower illegal immigration also reflects the weakness of the economy and is likely to reverse when the economy recovers. To really make illegal immigration a negligible phenomenon, we would need to be far more ruthless, say by conducting routine pogroms against illegal immigrants. One hopes such measures will remain politically off limits.
On the other hand, we could change the laws so that they conformed to the standard of justice that the people who talk to Vargas assume that our laws must conform to already (this being America, where one expects a minimum of common sense and justice to be practiced). We could provide a path to legal citizenship for those who grew up here and know no other home. But then the incentives for more illegal immigrants to come will be greatly strengthened. We could try to beef up enforcement still more, but there are ladders, tunnels, boats, and shipping containers. Our borders, by land and sea, are very long. And a parent’s desire to give a better life to her child is a very strong motive.
Obama has now given foreign-born de facto Americans a shaky legal foothold in the country. I have no evidence, but it stands to reason that foreigners seeking a better life for their young children will have noticed that. The U.S. economy may finally achieve a strong turnaround any day now, making America a magnet for illegal immigrants again, and leading eventually to a new generation of kids growing up in limbo. Jose Antonio Vargas and his movement have a lot of work to do.
Nathan Smith is a professor of economics and finance at Fresno Pacific University. He is the author of and blogs at .