Enforcing Immigration Laws Isn’t Supposed To Feel Good

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Ira Mehlman Media Director, FAIR
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At a May 15 Senate Government Affairs Committee hearing, Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) grilled Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about her department’s efforts to enforce immigration laws at the border and in the interior of the country. “I’m extremely concerned about the administration’s repeated attacks on some of the most vulnerable communities, and in particular, children and pregnant women as it relates to the world of DHS,” Harris said in her opening statement, strongly implying that actions by agencies within her department are cruelly separating families.

Secretary Nielsen deftly deflected Harris’s implications by noting that DHS is merely carrying out its responsibilities as mandated by laws enacted by Congress with the intent of protecting the public interest. “No, what we are doing is prosecuting parents who have broken the law, just as we do every day in the United States of America,” replied Nielsen to Harris’s assertion that DHS is maliciously separating children from their parents.

Nielsen might also have reminded Senator Harris that during her own long career as a prosecutor, as District Attorney of San Francisco and has Attorney General of California, she undoubtedly took actions that separated families or which resulted in significant hardships to innocent family members. Like every other law enforcement officer, there were surely times when Harris felt badly about what she had to do, but also understood that it was necessary to protect societal interests and that the ultimate responsibility rested with the people who broke the laws she was sworn to uphold.

Senator Harris’s line of questioning, like a significant amount of media coverage consists of emotional responses to DHS’s efforts to control our borders and enforce immigration laws in the interior of the country. These blatant appeals to emotion belabor the obvious: Law enforcement – particularly enforcement of civil laws – rarely feels good. But what Harris and others overlook is that what feels good can be harmful and what is necessary is often uncomfortable.

Most people who violate laws aren’t monsters. The vast majority of people who violate civil laws are otherwise decent people who make bad decisions, or cheat to achieve some significant gain for themselves at the expense of the general interests of society. That last category – identifiable human beings who commit acts that significantly benefit themselves and their families, while the harm is spread among many unidentifiable victims – is the hardest to address.

The societal impact of one individual violating our immigration laws, claiming a job in this country, putting his kids in our public schools, and using other services is negligible. Twelve million (or more) people violating our immigration laws has a profound impact on other workers, on schools and other vital public institutions, and on other societal interests. That is why society is obligated to take action against every immigration law violator who is identified, even if does not feel especially good doing so.

Immigration lawbreakers are human beings. As such, they have understandable aspirations and they have families — families that directly benefit from their decision to violate immigration laws, and that are directly harmed when the law is enforced. But empathy does not change the fact that their illegal actions harm others, and that those interests must be protected.

Throughout her testimony, Nielsen repeatedly made clear to Harris and other lawmakers that the steps her department is taking to enforce immigration laws are necessitated by Congress’s refusal to fix or enact laws that effectively entice people to violate our immigration laws. Gaping loopholes in our asylum and anti-trafficking laws permit that widespread fraud and encourage people to show up in the company of minors, are well known to Congress, and leave DHS with little choice but to take the steps Harris finds objectionable

Illegal and widespread state and local policies that promise illegal aliens sanctuary (most notably in Harris’s home state), and the lack of a mandated employment eligibility verification system further induce illegal immigration and compel DHS to step up enforcement in the interior of the country.

Harris and her congressional colleagues have the power to fix these problems in a way that deters people from breaking our laws and minimizes the hardship to innocent family members and the American public. Until they are prepared to take these steps, members of Congress should think carefully before pointing fingers at federal law enforcement agencies that are forced to clean up the mess Congress is ignoring.

Ira Mehlman is the media director at Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

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