Stephen Gottlieb: So-called “Illegal Aliens” And The Golden Door

Jul 10, 2018

We hear a lot of talk about legality and illegality, about illegal aliens as a wrong inflicted on the U.S. I think we need to address the significance of legality and illegality head on.

Law and morality are not the same. Slavery and the Holocaust were consistent with the written law. Assisting fugitive slaves was legally punishable in this country but those involved in the underground railroad are honored now and were often protected by people in free states while slave catchers sometimes faced riots and retribution.

This separation of law and morality is common to all parts of the political spectrum. There are arguments why laws should be obeyed but they are all contingent on how bad the violation of morality is.

The term “illegal aliens” is inappropriate for immigrants until their cases are decided. They have a right to apply regardless of how they got here. But I don’t want to get hung up on legality. My question is morality. Are immigrants morally wrong to come here at great risk to themselves and their families?

The Charter for the Nuremberg Trials took aim at crimes against humanity which included “Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population.” Is it then immoral to flee from likely murder, extermination, enslavement or other inhumane acts? It makes no moral sense to allege that parents were immoral because they broke American law, even if that were true, to avoid such fates, to save their children’s lives or their own.

But these arguments about immigrants miss what really matters to most of us – our willingness to share. The first time I visited the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus’ poem about the statue was on a brass plaque over the entrance. The next time it had been moved to the museum underneath. It’s the poem that ends “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Mama passed through that door as a girl of eight. She was brought here by her older brother Sam. He was 12, and they were brought up by sisters who were already here. My parents described the racism and religious prejudice that threatened many immigrant families. But it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as the pogroms that mama and my dad’s parents escaped. And no one knew yet how much more dangerous that part of the world was going to be for Jewish families.

Shortly before my graduation from college I got a phone call to rush to the hospital where mama was being treated for cancer. One of the last things she said to me was “It’s a good life; I don’t want to leave it.” This country was good to my parents and they loved it. They learned English, got an education and decent jobs, raised a son, and in the summers we traveled all over this state.

My reaction to those blessings is to see the blessings immigrants brought with them, to want to share, and to treat immigrants in humane ways that once made this country a beacon to the world.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran. 

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