Should Immigration Laws Be Respected?

For decades, politicians around the world have repeatedly reminded voters that unauthorized immigrants—or “illegals,” as they like to put it—have broken the law.

By entering the country without permission, staying on after their visas expired, or working outside the official economy, migrants are often doing what the law says they shouldn’t. They are “queue jumpers” who should wait their turn—even though there is no queue they could ever join. They “drain resources” and “steal jobs,” even though they contribute substantially to national economies and work jobs no-one else wants for lower pay. They face a life in the shadows of illegality and continual fear of being separated from those they love, incarcerated and deported. These people have very few chances to state their case.

Because the law is the law and should be obeyed, it’s very easy to agree with the politicians and conclude that migrants have done wrong. But things are more complicated than that. The rule of law requires not just obedience, but also fairness.

We normally think that people should respect and obey the law in democracies, even when we don’t like what it says. That’s because the law provides each of us with a framework in which to live our lives. Though it limits what we can do to pursue our aims, it also restricts what other people can do to us, giving us some security against people and corporations that might act in an abusive or exploitative way.

Of course, that’s just the theory; the law also reflects and sometimes amplifies the inequalities in our societies. That’s why, when people disagree with the law, we presume that they should use democratic means to change it. Such means might include persuading lawmakers, political parties, and their fellow citizens to adopt a different set of policies; voting for parties committed to reform; and perhaps engaging in protest or mild civil disobedience. But foreigners typically can’t do many of those things outside their home country and may risk adverse consequences, including deportation, if they engage in open protest. The democratic process, in other words, does not include them.

Do would-be immigrants, then, actually have a duty to obey immigration laws that tell them they shouldn’t be on the territory, or mustn’t work? One reason to hesitate is that the implicit bargain among citizens, whereby the law limits our freedom in a fair and reciprocal manner, doesn’t really apply to those immigrants. The law coerces them by keeping them out or down—but it doesn’t do anything for them in return. It doesn’t even pretend to treat them fairly.

Some people think this doesn’t matter. They think a country belongs to its citizens and that “we” have a right to pick and choose who can come and who can stay. After all, immigrants have their own countries where they should live their lives unless they have permission to go somewhere else.

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