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They Broke the Law

Summary:
Current Events I keep seeing conservatives on Facebook justify the practice of separating refugee/illegal immigrant kids from their parents with the following argument: “They broke the law!” I guess the thought is that if you break the law, you thereby knowingly incur and accept the consequences of doing so. “They should have known this would happen. They took the risk.” The problem with this argument, of course, is that even if we grant for the sake of argument that the US has a right to detain and remove refugees and illegal immigrants, it does not follow that it may do whatever it pleases to them. There are limits to what governments may do to criminals when enforcing laws. Consider this

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Current Events

I keep seeing conservatives on Facebook justify the practice of separating refugee/illegal immigrant kids from their parents with the following argument: “They broke the law!”

I guess the thought is that if you break the law, you thereby knowingly incur and accept the consequences of doing so. “They should have known this would happen. They took the risk.”

The problem with this argument, of course, is that even if we grant for the sake of argument that the US has a right to detain and remove refugees and illegal immigrants, it does not follow that it may do whatever it pleases to them. There are limits to what governments may do to criminals when enforcing laws.

Consider this dialogue:

A. “They broke the law.”

B. “So, your view is that government agents may permissibly do whatever they damn well please when you break the law? Like if you, say, misreported some of your income to the IRS, it would be fine to forcibly separate you from your kids because you broke the law?”

A. “No, because I’m a citizen.”

B. “Okay, so if you were to, say, jaywalk in Amsterdam, then the Dutch cops could take your kids from you? Or, if you were to show up in Rio but you forgot to get a Visa head of time, the Brazilian police could take your kids away?”

A. “No…I mean…You do know these people aren’t white, right?!”

Of course, I advocate open borders, think border restrictions are unjust, and think illegal immigrants have a right and moral permission to break our laws. But even if I’m wrong about that, the mere fact that they broke those particular laws doesn’t justify imposing this kind of severe psychological trauma on them and their children. And, of course, the “they broke the law” people already know that–they themselves most likely believe that justice limits what people can do to people who break laws.

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan (Ph.D., 2007, University of Arizona) is Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Chair and Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business, and by courtesy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Georgetown University, and formerly Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Research, at Brown University. He specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics.

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