On immigration, what would King do?

The monarch butterfly symbolizes immigrants’ journeys across U.S.-Mexico border. (Pepe Lozano/CC)

“Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.”

— Martin Luther King Jr.

I got a call from the parents of my kids’ friends. I’ll call them Paula and Eduardo. They wanted to talk about helping their youngest stay in the country and finish high school, if they got deported. Paula and Eduardo and their two oldest all overstayed their temporary visas — for years. The youngest is an American citizen.

Imagine calling a neighbor and asking them to take in your child because you might get rounded up and deported! It hearkens to another time and place — Germany in the 1930s and the rise of fascism.

Overstaying a temporary immigration visa is not a criminal offense. In fact, it’s considered a civil offense. Like Paula and Eduardo, nearly half of the undocumented population also entered legally. Most civil law violations result in a fine. Under current immigration law, there are no options to legalize their status by paying a fine. The penalty is deportation and ripping apart a family.

I believe, like millions of other Americans, this law is unjust. There should be a way for families like Paula and Eduardo’s to pay a fine and get right with the law.

Most of the current debate around immigration revolves around “legal” or “illegal.” Some of my friends from high school like to say they are all for immigration, as long as it’s “legal.” What does that mean? Especially when the president is flaunting international and U.S. law by closing the border to asylum seekers. Laws passed by Congress and signed by the president are open to interpretation. That’s why there are courts and judges, which President Trump likes to flaunt too.

The administration’s approach on immigration makes it almost impossible for the public to understand what is legal and illegal under U.S. immigration law because the president himself is changing it by fiat and not through Congress.

Book ended by mass deportations and border closings, Trump’s policies and rhetoric have created chaos for an immigration system already in need of significant reform. The terms “legal” and “illegal” immigration more closely aligned with Trump’s political power than any rule of law. And this is by design, as one immigrant rights activist pointed out.

“Of course when you choke off legal reform, slow asylum petitions to a trickle, use criminal prosecution to channel asylum seekers to narrow points of entry, and militarize the border, then you get the chaos you desire. And families fleeing violence and seeking refuge pay the price,” said Josh Hoyt, executive director of National Partnership for New Americans, in a recent social media post.

The terms “law and order” or “legal and illegal” are rendered meaningless at best (and covers for authoritarianism at worst) by the Trump administration’s upending legal immigration systems and attacking the courts when they rule against him.

In his powerful “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr offered a profound explanation of just and unjust laws. King wrote the letter to answer his critics who urged him to end the campaign of civil disobedience. King and others devised a strategy to “fill the jails” of Birmingham, Ala., by breaking relatively minor laws in order to eradicate legal segregation and disenfranchisement, known as Jim Crow laws.

“I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws,” King wrote.

“Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”

Law and politics are closely related. Laws can be changed based on the political will of the people.

For example, slavery was legal. The majority of voting Americans (white men) supported it. Laws that upheld the rights of slave owners ruled the land until the nation’s politics changed and Abraham Lincoln, who ran on a platform of containing slavery (not abolishing it), was elected president. This marked a great political change for the country, helped in large part by the growing abolitionist movement and the enslaved people themselves, fighting to be free. The rest was history. Slavery was legally abolished and a new generation of racial laws, codes and policies took its place.

King defied those racist laws in acts of civil disobedience, as did the thousands of civil rights activists throughout the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. In so doing they changed the politics and the laws of the country.

Immigration law is unjust. What the White House has caused is lawlessness — “no law at all.” Instead, of the “legal and illegal” binary, let’s view immigration law from the vantage point of “just” and “unjust.” King provided a moral compass that can help us find the country’s True North on this pressing issue.

King wrote the Birmingham letter because the freedom movement met resistance, not only from the racist segregationists but from those “white moderates” who said they supported civil rights but publicly urged King to use other methods to achieve liberation.

It was that group King addressed in his letter.

“You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws.

“One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws.”

Explaining what makes a law just or unjust, he continued:

“Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.

“To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.”

What is it if not unjust to tear children from their parents? What is it if not degrading to close the southern border to asylum seekers and fire tear gas at them? What is it if not soul-distorting and damaging to deport and rip apart families due to minor infractions? What is it if not a “false sense of superiority” to think America can be great without immigrants?

Those on both sides of the immigration issue have sought to use King’s words to support their viewpoint. King never directly addressed immigration in his speeches and writings. But his attitude on just and unjust laws is clear.

“We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal. If I lived in a Communist country today where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws.”

I would like to imagine King leading a great sit-in at the border or a march on Washington for immigrant, voting and worker rights where he would make the case for a path to citizenship for the undocumented.

Let me close with how King began the Birmingham letter to illustrate the threat to democracy that unjust immigration laws pose:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

The immigration laws must change and U.S. citizens have a moral obligation to speak out for just laws. Laws that uplift “human personality,” keep families together and provide security, refuge and opportunity to immigrants.

I deeply believe we are “tied in a single garment of destiny,” and what threatens Paula and Eduardo’s family today can threaten my family tomorrow. Conversely, providing a path to legalization for those here without authorization and other just reforms can benefit us all — citizens and legal residents — by making the economy and democracy stronger, the border safer and our communities stabler.

For more information on what just immigration reform could look like, here are a few examples: