First, a reminder:
As every year since we planned the first Ride in 2011, we post occasional essays in the weeks before our departure. This year, we will leave NYC on April 18. Once we are on the road, we will post every night so you can share the adventure.
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In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean went to prison for stealing bread to feed a starving child.
A boy in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath risked jail too: “Last night I went an’ busted a winda an’ stoled some bread. Made [my pa] chew ‘er down. But he puked it all up, an’ then he was weaker. . . . He’s starvin’ to death, I tell you!”
These fictional characters reflected real life in an 1830s French monarchy, and during the 1930s Great American Depression. People were severely punished for committing minor crimes even to save a life. It had been worse. In Merrie Olde England, stealing bread was punishable by death.
Modern criminal penalties are, for the most part, more proportional. And most crimes have an expiry date.
Here’s how to get away with armed robbery in (for example) hang-’em-high law-‘n’-order Texas.
Load your gun, rob your victim (you may pistol-whip her, just don’t kill her), stay in Texas, and don’t get indicted. After 5 years, you’re untouchable.
Not only Texas forgives and forgets. For most crimes, American law has statutes of limitations. The state recognizes problems of proof and of justice. It declines to pursue or punish perps of long-ago crimes.
For American criminals, there’s another way out. Juries (and to a lesser extent, judges) have discretion in verdicts and sentencing. Like any discretionary power, it can be abused. Yet when the letter of the law is unjust – as when a trespasser seeks shelter from a storm, or an abused spouse clubs her abuser, or a starving person steals a loaf of bread – discretion can set things right.
And who among us has not exceeded the speed limit, cut across someone else’s land, or violated some aspect of the Internal Revenue Code? In NYC, letting your dog pee on a sidewalk can get you a $25 fine and 10 days in jail; how often is that enforced? States and cities have tax amnesties: tax cheats pay up, sometimes at a discount, and all is forgiven. The driver who shattered Jeffrey’s leg in 2014 was not issued a ticket, despite her lawyer conceding that she was 100% at fault. Amnesties and discretionary enforcement let citizens get away with stuff.
For noncitizens, it’s different. Immigration law rarely forgives and never forgets. Something you did decades ago, even if a new law made it a “deportable offense” after the fact, can get you banished from the United States.
Uninformed people say, “The law is the law. Foreigners are here illegally. Get rid of them!”
These laypersons – including the president, who shows no knowledge of the law and does not vet his remarks with knowledgeable people – speak without understanding our complex immigration system. Most immigration violations are civil, not criminal. Many people facing removal from this country would qualify to stay if they get their day in court. Federal agents have arrested, jailed, and even deported U.S. citizens. On our first Ride in 2011, we ourselves met a U.S. citizen who had been jailed illegally by immigration cops.
What happened to common-sense fairness? A person who lives and works here, supports her children, participates in the economy as producer and consumer, pays taxes that enrich the commonwealth, joins religious and civic groups that help the community, becomes one of us . . . at some point, justice demands that we recognize that America is her home.
Years ago, an immigration judge – a refugee who became a U.S. citizen – told Jeffrey that we need careful border controls, but that after someone has lived here and become part of our society, we owe that person compassion.
The judge was right. All laws, criminal and civil, Biblical and Constitutional, require interpretation. Law making, interpretation, and enforcement, are human enterprises. Immigrants are human. Are they not entitled to humane treatment, in light of all the circumstances?
We say yes. We say that immigration law must be changed to reflect our universal moral values. Temper justice with mercy. Make the punishment fit the offense. Don’t criminalize normal constructive human behavior.
Until then, common-sense discretion should temper enforcement. There is no excuse for cruelty to individuals, families, communities.
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation; we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
—William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 1, line 196