Gary Francisco Keller Ph.D.

What part of illegal?

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“Illegal” is so clear to the self-righteous wielder of weapons. The Brits once accused their subjects of not paying taxes while enjoying the benefits of government, of burning the flag and raising another, and of issuing an incendiary manifesto claiming various rights as natural to their humanity. The impudent rebels became the founding fathers, their pollution of a harbor the Boston Tea Party, and their seditious manifesto, the Declaration of Independence.

Laws are morally binding when they further justice. When they go against it, the virtuous thing to do is oppose them. St. Augustine, in Civitas Dei (City of God, 4.4), judged that “legality” without justice reflects the immoral will of the strong over the weak. “Take away justice, then, and what are governments but great bandit bands?” Why isolate S.B. 1070 and endow it with special significance? It is merely the latest instance of a long history of “legality” as the expedient of power. Focus on justice.

An African proverb goes, “Until lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter.” The U.S.-Mexican War ended in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The United States acquired over 500,000 square miles of valuable territory. As injurious as this was to Mexico, the Treaty “at least” provided property, language, religious freedom, and citizenship rights to the Mexicans residing in the territory. Almost every one of those rights was dishonored.  Might equaled right.

In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, creating a moratorium on Chinese labor immigration. It was the first time federal law denied entry into the U.S.A. based on ethnicity. The law was extended with the Geary Act, and restrictions on Chinese immigrants continued until the 1920s. Eventually and expediently, the situation changed and justice peered through a slightly open door.

The Great Depression led to massive “repatriation” of both Mexicans and Mexican Americans. About 400,000 to 500,000 were deported. Federal deportation campaigns began in 1928 and intensified between 1929 and 1931, but really continued throughout the 1930s. With World War II, the situation changed and we needed Mexican agricultural labor. A new law judged as a splendid move in support of the war effort was passed allowing Mexican workers to migrate to the United States.

Then the war was viewed as a victory. What was legal changed. From 1944 to 1954, the number of undocumented Mexicans coming to this country increased by 6,000 percent.  It was concluded that workers were being exploited while newspapers were blaming immigrants for crime. Operation Wetback began in 1954, officially targeting “illegal aliens” but actually focusing on Mexicans in general. Police canvassed Mexican-American barrios across the southern part of the country. During 1954, one million immigrants were deported, including some U.S.-born children. It was “legal” until it became too embarrassing. By fall of the same year, funding ran out as the program came under increasing criticism. Because it was unjust, it became illegal.

Our community has historians and we know the record. We also know that esto va para largo, and those laws, as harsh as they appear for the moment, are transitory, expedient, political commodities. For so many reasons – historical, demographic, cultural, spiritual, moral, and economic – we will be here forever and one day past that. As will justice, which must always win out.

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