The current political fight over the U.S.-Mexico border is extraordinary not only for its intensity, but also because of how little of the debate has to do with the laws on the books. Neither party is fighting to change federal immigration law; they are fighting over whether to enforce it.
U.S. Code 1325 makes it a crime for any foreign national to “[enter] or [attempt] to enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers, or (2) [elude] examination or inspection by immigration officers.” The statute also sets penalties for this crime (up to six months in jail for first-time offenders).
Not a single federal-level politician has raised the idea of decriminalizing the act of sneaking across the border. However, a few vocal political leaders have called for ending Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), effectively declawing our immigration laws.
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren have signed on to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s call to abolish ICE. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has voiced the same opinion. These are lawmakers who have the ability––if not the moral duty––to change laws that they feel are wrong.
Instead of changing the rules, however, they’re neutralizing them. This failure to execute the law is itself illegal. Federal law requires: “the inspection, processing, and admission of persons who seek to enter or depart the United States.” It also mandates “the detection, interdiction, removal, departure from the United States, short-term detention, and transfer of persons unlawfully entering, or who have recently unlawfully entered, the United States.”
The law gives us an answer to the immigration question: the federal government is required to secure the border. Congress can argue within itself about how to secure the border, but current law is clear that it must be done.
There is no bill coming up for a vote in Congress that would change the law as it currently stands. No one is even trying to change the law. Instead, they are taking the easy way out and neutralizing the laws they don’t like. As a citizen, you and I cannot cherry-pick which laws we want to follow and which we’d rather skip. To give legislators that privilege is profoundly un-democratic.
Any rule without enforcement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. We respect “no parking” signs because if we don’t, we’ll get ticketed. We file our taxes annually, not always because we think the government makes good use of it, but because it’s required by law. If no one ever got a parking ticket, or was caught cheating on her taxes, millions more people would break those rules, emboldened by the knowledge that they’ll never get caught.
Since Democratic presidential candidates can run on a platform of ignoring immigration law, what’s to stop a conservative or libertarian candidate from running on the platform of ending income tax enforcement? At least that platform would benefit American citizens. Looking the other way on immigration benefits non-citizens, arguably to the detriment of people who live here legally.
The lawmakers who rail against immigration law are no longer trying to change it. Democratic voters should be furious that their legislators are making no attempt to legislate on this major issue. Republican voters should be furious that members of Congress are ignoring the rule of law. If this is how the powers that be are going to run things, then we will not be a nation of laws, but a nation of whichever laws the party in power prefers.