“What would you do in their shoes?” That’s the question I ask my fellow conservative friends whenever we debate immigration, and in particular the question of what should happen to immigrants who illegally cross the U.S. border. “What would you do if your family were hungry, your wages minuscule, and your government so corrupt or incompetent that there was little hope of conditions improving any time soon?”
The question became newly relevant recently when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made headlines by suggesting that love prompts many foreign nationals to illegally enter the U.S. They come, he said:
“… because their families – the dad who loved their children – was worried that their children didn’t have food on the table. And they wanted to make sure their family was intact, and they crossed the border because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family. Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love.”
The conservative response was strong, swift and almost unanimously negative. A few pundits even claimed that, with his “act of love” remark, Bush dashed any hope he may have had of winning the Republican nomination for president in 2016.
Much of the criticism was of the “We are a nation of laws” variety. (Of course, some of these same people supported Cliven Bundy in his battle with federal land managers; perhaps if immigration reformers labeled their cause “civil disobedience,” they’d attract more conservatives to their cause.) But Bush stated clearly that he thinks those crossing the border illegally should pay a “price” for breaking the law.
More to the point, just because an act is "illegal" does not mean it can’t be done out of love. Which brings me back to my original question to my fellow conservatives: What would you do in their shoes? Would you break the law to feed your family, or follow the law and risk endangering them?
I have yet to encounter anyone who has told me that they wouldn’t do whatever it took to help their family — including crossing a border to find work. In fact, I’d argue that people living in the direst circumstances would not only be permitted to break the law, but be obligated to do so.
I am not the only one who feels that way. So, apparently, do many of those most directly responsible for preventing such acts of love from happening.
Recently in National Affairs, immigration expert Peter Skerry wrote that one thing “which no [Border Patrol] agent I have ever talked with has failed to voice unprompted, is, ‘If I were in [the undocumented immigrants’] shoes, I’d be doing the same thing and crossing that border to better things for me and my family.'”
Skerry added, “No wonder that, among Border Patrol agents, morale has long been so low and attrition so high.”
That most immigrants who illegally enter the country are motivated at least in part by love is evident in the amount of money they send home to loved ones. The World Bank estimates that immigrants in America send nearly $100 billion annually in remittances to their home countries. And a recent study by the Inter-American Dialogue found that immigrants send an average of more than $2,600 to their home countries every year.
That money can make a big difference in the lives of those who receive it. According to the Pew Research Center, a significant share of remittances is spent on basic items, such as food, healthcare, education and clothing. In some Latin American countries, remittances from the U.S. are a more powerful economic engine than the combination of foreign direct investment and foreign aid.
Some immigration critics say that people who refuse to enter the country through legal channels shouldn’t be rewarded for breaking the law. That’s true, but “waiting in line” may not be an option for those living in abject poverty.
Wait times for family-based visas can be as long as 24 years, according to a 2013 Washington Post analysis of State Department figures. “You can wait six years, 15 years or 20 years to come on a family visa,” Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a coalition of pro-immigration business organizations, told USA Today. “For a young, able-bodied man to look for work, he’d apply when he’s 18 and come when he’s 40.”
Conservatives often accuse liberals of talking about empathy constantly but employing it very selectively. For example, conservatives argue that liberals display a desire to help poor people through government programs, but less concern for small business owners struggling under the weight of government regulations. But conservatives can be selectively compassionate, especially when it comes to immigrants. Here’s the bottom line for conservatives: You can oppose amnesty while also conceding that many come to America out of desperation to help the people they love.
One of the most important takeaways from the 2012 election was that Republicans were suffering from a perceived “empathy gap.” Exit polls showed that among voters looking for a candidate who “cares about people like me,” Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by a stunning 63 percentage points.
The conservative reaction to Jeb Bush’s immigration comments indicates that Republicans are still unprepared to take the simple steps necessary to begin to close that gap.