At what point does “obeying the law” become the wrong thing to do?
I recently pondered this question when coming across a bumper sticker with the following words:


One wonders if the person who decided to place this bumper sticker on their car has ever had a family member die or be maimed from a land mine explosion. But in light of the ignorance giving rise to such ideas, humane sentiments might be too much to ask.

My initial, knee-jerk response to the absurdity of the sticker was soon replaced by a calmer moment of reflection. I thought about it for some time and eventually concluded that this bumper sticker exemplifies a critical issue in our life as a country, an issue that legal theorists still debate in elite institutions around the world: the relationship between law and ethics.

For some time now, the “immigration problem” has been a thorn in the side of politicians who must work to protect civil liberties while catering to racist, anti-immigrant constituencies. For example, by focusing on politically correct terms like “new immigrant populations” or “naturalized citizens” or “illegal aliens,” we avoid discussing the racial dimensions of people’s discomfort with Hispanics and Latinos. Of course, there must be legal language that speaks to issues without naming names, etc. But without overstating the case, the fact is that when many people talk about immigration, they’re talking about why they don’t want to live next to, rent from, work for, work with, intermarry with or eventually vote for people who speak Spanish and have darker skin. In short, many United States citizens have embraced a long-standing tradition of racial hatred against Native American, Hispanic, Caribbean and Latin peoples—a tradition highlighted by the so-called “immigration problem.” In addition, the racist, anti-immigration lobby also avoids discussions about the possibility that obeying the law could be wrong. Because of our historically myopic prejudice, we Americans often forget that laws themselves may be used as vehicles of injustice. Consequently, we neglect the problems which may arise when people’s attempts to improve their quality of life are dismissed by rigid observance of law.

“But,” a critic might reply, “Aren’t U.S. born citizens bound by the law? Then, why shouldn’t immigrants also be bound by the law? The fact is that illegals are breaking the law—our law!.. How would our society function if native-born citizens didn’t obey the law, even if they did so to live a better life?..”

No one would deny that law is central to the maintenance of order in society. But to the objection above, we might respond by asking if “order” is the goal of society in the first place. Laws exist because of an ethical condition, and that ethic is the inherent value of our survival. Moreover, this value is itself dependent on our ability to work together as a human family for the good of future generations. This is something we all know. We all know what it means to live with other human beings, as a human family. To suggest otherwise is dishonest. Therefore, the goal of society need not be law. We don’t need laws to teach us how to live alongside other human beings. We may know how to do it, but we often choose not to do it. In fact, the goal of any human society has never been law itself. Rather, it is always the higher value of human-togetherness—that is, the maintenance of human bonds and the sustenance of human families.

This is why I contend that the so-called “immigration problem” is less a problem with immigrants and more a problem we Americans have with our own humanity. All of us, at some time or another, want to feel that as human beings, we’re important. We want to think that others value our presence and that our lives are special in some way. But it is scandalous these days to suggest that as human beings, we Americans are nothing special. It is scandalous to insist that America is not the greatest country in the world, that we are not the freest, or that our “democracy” isn’t always democratic. Instead, we convince ourselves that there is nothing wrong with us, that we are the stand-bearers of peace, truth and justice, and that those other people, those people who “illegally” come across our borders, are the sources of our shortcomings.

In the past, if we as Americans didn’t live up to our own values, then we often found a particular group of people to blame. It’s a racist form of logic we’ve seen time and time again in our nation’s history. “If it weren’t for those people,” so the thinking goes, “we wouldn’t have all these problems.” Of course, the “problems” usually turn out to be issues reflecting the desire of Americans to be racially exclusive. For example, the man who is writing this column happens to be an Afro-Native American Jew. While honoring and cherishing his “Americanicity,” he cannot but help think about the various stories that made his citizenship possible. And these stories—like those of most Americans—were not always rosy. They were riddled with strife and conflict, with no small part due to the American social order. After all, there was a time when Black Americans who (illegally) escaped from slave plantations comprised a “Negro problem.” In the same respect, Native Americans who (also illegally) escaped from disease-ridden reservations contributed to this country’s “In’jun problem.” Also, many Jewish Americans who (illegally, I might add) escaped from Nazi Germany were a big part of this nation’s “Jewish problem.” And today, it is terribly unfortunate that Hispanics and Latinos escaping persecution and/or poverty have been used to manufacture a so-called “immigration problem.”

With this history of turning people into “problems,” we Americans come face-to-face with the values of our own culture, values that in our treatment of immigrants may be far removed from those of “one nation… with liberty and justice for all.” Let’s face it. When much of the country is talking about building a wall across our entire southern border to keep out “illegals,” we must seriously question our commitment to those “IN-alienable” Jeffersonian rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And so to avoid dealing with our own contradictions and dishonest loyalties (usually to money and power rather than people), we retreat into rhetoric about how superior we are when it comes to “obedience”, “law” and “order.” In fact, we adopt a credo familiar to those who committed some of the more significant crimes of the 20th century. To deny any oppressed people an opportunity to live in peace alongside us—all in the name of “obeying the law” or “following orders”—is a sign, if nothing else, of our loss of human sensibilities.

To be sure, the political issue of immigration will be discussed for many years. And the debate over the relationship between being an American and being human is far from over. But one thing will remain constant for years and years to come: the fact that “pro-American” sentiments will often mask “anti-foreign” agendas. And like the bumper sticker calling for land mines suggests, a desire for a racially segregated world often lay beneath all our patriotism and national consciousness. So when we’re discussing the “immigration problem” with family and friends, whether we’re discussing it at the grocery store or the barber shop or even while on the job, I challenge us all to think about that bumper sticker and remember the possible repercussions of demanding “law and order” in exchange for the value of people’s lives. In a way, that sticker actually pointed out the real issue behind all the rhetoric—our survival as one human family. As all of us know, but few of us take seriously, our Hispanic brothers and sisters already risk their lives, every single day, for a better opportunity here. No walls or border patrol or even land mines will ever put a stop to that level of human courage. And in the face of that courage, we American citizens must be courageous enough to welcome our neighbors with open arms.