BROKEN WINDOWS AND IMMIGRATION: Let’s Stop Holding Our Laws In Contempt

The “broken windows” theory of crime and policing predicts that visible signs of minor crimes being tolerated (broken windows, graffiti, etc) will lead to an increase in more serious crimes, because they send a signal that the rule of law operates here only imperfectly. The theory is widely accepted for the simple reason that it works, but where illegal immigration is concerned it seems always to be forgotten. And yet this is where its validity is most obvious.

It is commonly said that entering the country illegally is not really a crime.  This is of course factually wrong: our immigration laws do indeed make it a crime. What is really meant is that it’s not an important crime. (But surely more important than a broken window?) The results give us a resounding demonstration of just how and why the broken windows theory works: sanctuary cities, criminal gangs like MS-13 and Kate Steinle dead. These things are not unforeseeable aberrations. Condoning crime of any kind encourages contempt for the rule of law, and then anything can happen.

As a supporter of San Francisco’s sanctuary city status, Nancy Pelosi is often blamed for the Steinle tragedy, but the broken windows theory tells us that the blame really belongs elsewhere. It lies primarily with all those who have so loudly insisted that our immigration laws don’t matter and shouldn’t be enforced. They have smeared anyone who argues for enforcement as a nativist and anti-immigrant bigot, willfully ignoring the issue that animates their adversaries: a necessary respect for the rule of law, the basis of our civilization.

What then does the broken windows theory suggest we do about illegal immigration in general, and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy (DACA) in particular? The real point is what we should not do: we must do nothing that undermines the rule of law.

Sooner or later, the word “amnesty” always dominates any discussion of this question. People who favor citizenship for illegals resist it because they insist that it overstates their proposals, while those who don’t favor legal status for illegals insist it’s the right word. They are both wrong. “Amnesty” doesn’t overstate what we do when we grant legal status and eventually citizenship to illegal aliens: it understates the matter, and to an alarming degree. Citizenship for illegal entrants is far worse than amnesty.

An amnesty suspends legal penalties for a particular crime. It holds the lawbreaker harmless, returning him to the state he was in before he committed his crime. The penalty for entering the country illegally is up to six months in jail; a repeat offence brings up to two years in jail. If the word “amnesty” is used correctly, it would imply suspending the imposition of those penalties, nothing more. Citizenship in this country has considerable value. An amnesty never puts a criminal in a much better position than he was in before he broke the law: it won’t let him profit handsomely from his crime. You might decide not to prosecute a bank robber, but you’d never let him keep his loot, and you certainly wouldn’t give him a handsome reward for robbing the bank. That would make crime the best way to go. But that is exactly what most proposed solutions for illegal immigration do. They are much more than amnesties–they offer huge rewards for breaking the law. There is always moral hazard in holding people harmless for committing crimes, but the hazard in offering bonuses to law-breakers precisely because they have broken the law raises the hazard to an infinitely higher level. Condoning crime is bad enough. Positively encouraging it is insanity. President Barack Obama’s 2012 DACA by presidential fiat was followed by waves of unaccompanied minors flooding into the country. That’s what happens when we let the world know that we don’t care about our immigration laws.

How does all of this apply to DACA now? Giving legal status to children brought here illegally by their parents gives those parents a large reward for their bad behavior. It does so in two ways: first, as parents, they have a vital interest in their children’s much improved prospects; and second, however chain migration is restricted, it is highly unlikely that the parent-child relationship won’t lead to some kind of family reunification. This means that though DACA will offer the fig leaf of helping only vulnerable children and not their law-breaking parents, the practical result will be the same: parents will be rewarded for their illegal behavior anyway.

What attitude then should we take to the plight of these children? It results from the actions of parents. Responsibility for it must remain with them, not with the US government. We do have a moral duty: it is to make it clear to those parents at the outset that there will never be an end run around US immigration and citizenship laws by means of putting one’s children at risk and then demanding that somebody else step in to protect them from their parents’ irresponsibility. Respect for the law is precious, and it is fragile. And it is far more important for our way of life than immigration is.

By our behavior over the last 30 years, we have encouraged both our own citizens and those of other countries to hold our immigration laws in contempt. Here is a simple way to reverse that. Any law that emerges from the negotiations that are now taking place should include a simple statement to the effect that a foreign national who enters the United States illegally will by that very act ensure that he or she can never become either a legal resident or a citizen of the United States. Draconian? No, it simply makes clear what ought always to have been so: there is a legal way to gain entry into this country, and if you try to use any other way you will have thrown away any chance you might have had for legal status.

John M. Ellis is distinguished professor emeritus of German literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz  

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.