Immigration and Bad Samaritans?

flag.jpg Jennifer Ludden had a story on National Public Radio last week about moves in the Virginia legislature to suppress illegal immigration. One bill would make it a felony to knowingly assist an illegal immigrant. Another would "ban state and local funding" to any nonprofit organization that helped illegal immigrants. Needless to say, those interested in serving the poor and needy--and those interested in funding such organizations--should take serious note.

There are two dimensions to this story worth noting. The first focuses on the straight-forward policy implications. Were these bills, or others like them, to pass -- and the story notes that some similar bills did pass last year -- nonprofits serious about serving the marginalized could find themselves engaged in criminal activity. The choices available would be slim and unattractive. Organizations could either: a) knowingly break the law and face felony charges; b) change target populations and turn a class of needy people away; or c) pursue some functional equivalent of a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy.

I am not an expert in social service delivery, but I am going to go guess that all three options are unattractive and that even option (c), while possible to carry out, would be suboptimal and probably still would put nonprofits and their employees at legal risk. That the story, and this policy challenge, is limited to Virginia doesn’t matter. State-level legislative options for dealing with immigration are not infinite. What appears likely in one place could appear likely in another.

A second dimension of this story worth exploring is the policy dilemma it raises for law-abiding citizens who also feel an investment in serving the poor. One could have a knee-jerk reaction to the proposed policies at either end of the liberal to conservative spectrum. People on one end could argue that it is categorically immoral to deny the truly needy based on any legal or political status. People on the other end could argue that rule of law is fundamental to a functioning democracy, and therefore that it is categorically wrong to knowingly aid and abet people who are breaking the law.

The challenge is recognizing the truth in both of these views. How do we find a path forward that recognizes that the values underlying them are in no way diametrically opposed, and also that well intentioned people can work for organizations whose missions vow to uphold either side? It would not be surprising if organizations engage in debate about legislation like the bills in Virginia by lining up on fairly traditional sides of the aisle. We will get better policy, though, if they do some crossing of the spectrum to listen, too.

Tiziana Dearing

Posted at 6:57 AM, Feb 06, 2007 in Peace and Justice | Permalink | Comment