The problem is that in each of those, competing values make an easy resolution difficult to justify if we are to remain intellectually honest. If all we care about is bloviating and exercising power, then no twinging of conscience is needed.
Let’s take the simplest one first, namely what to call someone who crosses our border without permission. Can a person be illegal? That would imply that we can shrink all the characteristics of someone down to a single quality. Of course, we do that all the time. Sex, skin color, height, weight, and so forth are readily observed facts about a person. If I see a person unknowingly drop his wallet, and I can’t get his attention, I would tell Lost and Found or a police officer that a tall man wearing a blue jacket and red hat is the owner. Those are the characteristics that would allow the proper authorities to identify the person in question on sight. Does he also play chess, vote for the Green Party, live with a lizard, or play the trombone? I have no idea, and it doesn’t matter in this case.
We do this because we don’t have time to list out everything there is to know about someone else when we discuss that person. Tolkien’s Ents live for thousands of years and can afford to give themselves comprehensive names. We can’t. That being the case, we have categories to organize and summarize what we’re talking about.
One such category is “criminal.” That is really what we’re talking about. Someone who crosses our border illegally has broken the law. The person’s whole being isn’t illegal, but by nature of that one act, the person has become a law-breaker. To obfuscate that fact is to attempt to hide the truth about what is going on.
But the obsession over status dooms any reform to failure. The total length of our international borders is 7,458 miles. That doesn’t include the various islands and the state of Hawai’i that are also U.S. territory. We’ve fought a War on Drugs since the Nixon administration. While some drugs are grown or produced within our nation, many are imported–smuggled, actually–in, and stopping that flow has proved impossible. In the same way, people will cross into our country without getting permission if there’s an incentive to do so.
There is a Klingon story about a man who insisted on facing a storm, rather than hiding safe inside the city. That fellow died. When the current flows one way, all we can do is try to steer it a bit. When the wind blows, we can try to stop it, or we can put up turbines to use what is inevitable. Instead of desperate measures to “secure” our borders, measures that are doomed to failure, how about putting printers and laminators at each port of entry. Anyone coming in will be issued an ID card that will work like a social security number when the person gets a job. It’s a whole lot easier to get employers to use the E-Verify system than to stop people from sneaking into the country.
The values in competition here are the dignity of work, the right of movement, and the need for security. I’ve shown that security, at least the form that many in the Republican Party seek, is an illusion. We may also ask here about the burden on social services, but if more workers were paying taxes and so forth, that burden, which we’re already carrying, would be reduced. While much more open borders wouldn’t guarantee that we know everything that we feel the need to know about immigrants, it would create a more open system. Greater danger lies in migrants who are hidden and who have to elude the government, rather than deal with it in the light of day.
This makes breaking the law only necessary for those who intend to commit more crimes. It also recognizes the worth of any person who comes here willing to work. That person can be a tax payer. That person will spend money in local businesses. That person also brings a desire to succeed, something that we throw away only at our cost.