The Myth of ‘Harsh’ Immigration Law

Many of the myths about America’s continuing immigration crisis can be attributed to the errors and falsehoods that often appear in the nation’s press, including exaggerations that are so commonplace they are regarded as facts. One of those is the myth that America’s immigration laws are unnecessarily “harsh.”

Words like “harsh,” “tough,” and “strict,” have been used almost routinely by some news organizations — including Business Week and and the Los Angeles Times, to name just two — to describe many recently adopted state laws designed to deal with the problem of illegal immigration as if the adjectives were a matter of fact. Even America’s generous federal immigration laws have not escaped the same description by journalists. Mercedes White, writing in the Desert News of Salt Lake City for October 31, cited a pro-immigration writer who argues that federal immigration laws are downright inhumane, and that the “punishments” meted out for illegal immigration are more severe than punishments for serious crimes.

White relates the story of T.J. and his wife Maythe. An American citizen, T.J. married Maythe in 2002 even though she had entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico and had been deported once. They had met at a Burger King in San Diego where Maythe was working illegally. (Whether she also had fake I.D. or a stolen or forged Social Security number was not revealed by White.) When Maythe was stopped by a traffic cop in 2010, her illegal status was discovered and she was deported again, despite her and T.J.’s efforts to appeal for asylum.

Because she entered the U.S. illegally twice, she is barrred by U.S. immigration law from entering the U.S. for 20 years. T.J. now travels to Mexico on weekends to visit Maythe.

White favorably quotes pro-immigration writer John Lee comparing this circumstance to punishments for crime:

“Somehow, we see immigrating illegally as something that merits the toughest, most inflexible, inhumane punishment possible short of physical harm. The mandatory sentence for people who have been unlawfully present in the U.S. for over one year is deportation for 10 years. Those who have crossed the border unlawfully more than once can be barred for life.”

White says that’s how “American families are being separated from one another as a matter of U.S. immigration laws.” She concludes that the punishment for violating those laws are insensibly worse than the penalties for murder: “The average prison sentence for a person who commits murder, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics, is 241 months (or 20 years). This means that the penalty for murder and the penalty for entering the United States illegally are the same. Except they aren’t. An individual sentenced to [sic] murder in the United States will only serve 147 months (12.25 years) in prison.”

There are at least two very serious problems with those assertions.

First, U.S. immigration law did not cause the separation of an American family. T.J. and Maythe voluntarily entered into a marriage contract that because of her illegal status was built on a faulty foundation that could only lead to separation. T.J. and Maythe created a fractured bond quite on their own. It was only after they married and after Maythe’s status was discovered by authorities that the two pursued legal means — via asylum proceedings — to repair the fissure. Had T.J. and Maythe gone to Mexico and married, and had T.J. then applied to bring Maythe into the U.S. legally as his wife, there would be no separation. But they chose the doomed route.

Next is the problem of exaggeration. Being forced to return home to one’s country of origin is not a “punishment” equivalent to imprisonment, to confinement in a cell, to a regimented daily prison routine in which one wears prison garb and submits to orders from armed guards. Comparing imprisonment to being sent home is an absurdity.

And because it is not comparable, it is an even greater absurdity to assert that repatriation is “the toughest, most inflexible, inhumane punishment possible short of physical harm.” Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edition, defines inhumane as “cruel, savage, barbarous, pitiless, and ruthless.” Torture is inhumane, but the failure to have a door opened is not. It is a misuse of the English language to assert that it is cruel, savage, and barbarous to be barred from merely entering a foreign country. It is propaganda, not reality.

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