(Eliseo Medina, right, is leading a fast he calls “spiritual warfare” to bring about an immigration law he considers righteous. (Photo courtesy of Suzanne Gamboa) )

Immigration debate forces clash on the morality of U.S. law

Gaunt and weak, Eliseo Medina speaks about his three-week fast as “spiritual warfare.” He’s petitioned Americans to join his “moral force” to get House Speaker John Boehner to show “moral courage” on an immigration bill with a path citizenship.

It’s no accident these religious and morality themes run through his nationally-staged immigration protest. He and others have staked their cause in a moral absolute:  that second-class citizenship should never be accepted in this country.

But they are not the only ones to see their side of things as righteous. Within Republican ranks in the House there are those who see their cause, upholding the rule of law, as equally just and moral.

Sparring for the higher moral ground puts the country in a familiar place of having to confront the morality or immorality of its laws as it did when it fought a Civil War, when black Americans rose up against sanctioned segregation, when women marched for the right to vote and when Mexican-Americans called for justice for their veterans and children.

President Barack Obama said in a recent speech in San Francisco’s Chinatown that throughout U.S. history immigrants have endured a second-class status often bestowed by law.

But he also deferred to the rule of law, the Constitution and its guarantee of separation of powers, when a protester interrupted his speech and demanded he suspend deportations. Obama said he must use the democratic process of changing the law in Congress.

Ben Jealous, former president of the NAACP,  visited Medina and others fasting in pursuit of an immigration reform to lend support, he said, noting that many African and Caribbean immigrants are among the latest immigrants in the U.S.

His visit also was a nod to the moral ground on which abolitionist Frederick Douglass based his opposition to the Chinese Exclusion Act, that barred Chinese immigration and restricted Chinese and later other Asians from becoming American citizens.

“We (civil rights leaders) since Frederick Douglass opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act, have said we will never stand by and watch another group of people pressed into wage slavery have their human rights and dignity assaulted because of their color,” he said.

What has defined Americans at their best has been “our willingness to recognize that there is a higher law than any one man has ever written,” Jealous said.  “It’s written in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. God has endowed us with certain rights … and no law can take away those rights,” he said.

Some in the Republican party have taken positions on immigration which are often shrouded by anti-immigrant rhetoric  – a comparison of immigrants to drug dealers with calves the size of cantaloupes, for example.

But Tamar Jacoby, who heads ImmigrationWorks USA, a Republican organization that supports immigration reform, said many Republicans are struggling with how to support immigration reform while still respecting the moral absolute of the rule of law.

They see an unfairness in creating a system that punishes those who have respected the law by applying and paying for visas to legally enter the U.S., waiting years for the chance to do so, working under visa law requirements, regularly returning home to renew those visas and getting legal permanent residency only through an employer’s sponsorship or through a relative or spouse.

“They are uncomfortable with a system that would say people who have broken the law get the same or better rights and privileges as people who have followed the law,” Jacoby said.

Under the sweeping Senate bill that the House has refused to take up, those who came illegally are given a “special royal road,” she said. Sure they have a long wait, but they also have a guaranteed path to get on a moving sidewalk, Jacoby said.

“That makes Republicans uneasy,” she said.

On Tuesday, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte will hold a hearing titled “The President’s Constitutional Duty to Faithfully Execute the Law.” Although the hearing will focus largely on the health care law, it also will touch on how President Barack Obama has executed or not executed immigration and other laws.

The argument of upholding the rule of law is a reasonable moral argument, said Rogers Smith, a University of Pennsylvania political science professor.

But American public policies helped create the situation leading to the at least 11 million immigrants in the country illegally, he said.

“Those policies were shaped by employers who wanted to bring cheap labor over and employ them with few protections and guarantees,” he said.

The failure to move beyond the moral absolutes, then, has led to millions of people without legal standing or rights and who effectively are second-class citizens. Meanwhile, the desire for them to be punished or deported is not being achieved either, Smith said.

“There is a lot to be said for each moral position,” Smith said. “Unfortunately the clash of moral absolutes means we are stuck with a worsening situation that doesn’t realize either moral objective.”

“It is a situation where both sides need to recognize that the fulfillment of moral absolutes is a rare occasion in politics,” and get to work hammering out a compromise, he said.

The fasters hit  21 days without food on Monday. The House returns Tuesday. Just eight days remain on the congressional calendar for a vote in the House.

%d bloggers like this: