Thursday, June 23, 2011

Legal Rule (rant)

Immigration is complicated--just the paperwork alone is often enough to snow people under for weeks. "Oh, you didn't get this piece? Well, you'll have to resubmit your entire application, then. It'll mean that you'll be past the deadline? Too bad. Well, I don't care that you didn't get that when you first came in. It's not my fault you didn't check...okay, then, it's not my fault you didn't know." The questions of identity, fitting in, deciding which bits of your own identity to keep, which ones to shed--well, books have been written about that.

But as exasperated as I am with the Dutch authorities (mostly the gemeente; as long as I don't end up in prison I'm pretty sure the INS is more than happy to forget about me), at least I am here legally. I have documents to prove I am who I say I am, and that I can live here. But for a brief time, I was technically in the Netherlands illegally--though we started the process of getting my residence approved before I would have needed a visa, my 90-day grace period ran out before my residence permit arrived. It was a jittery period, if only because I couldn't do anything by myself--and I'm a law-abiding person.

The idea that "the law is the law and if you break it you pay" forms the core of most "dialogues" (I use that word loosely, as most discussions tend to devolve into name-calling and what-all) on the subject of illegal immmigration. But the law isn't black-and-white: many examples in history show plainly that the law can be wrong (Dredd Scott) and lawbreakers (Rosa Parks) can be right. Does anybody who's not a white supremacist disagree with Brown v. Board of Education? People still fight--hell, they'll happily kill others--to bring us back before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal. How many people wouldn't talk their way out of a speeding ticket if they could? Laws are not immutable (see: gay marriage), nor can they encapsulate the full extent of human morality. And that's the point: the law may indeed be the law, but it's not always what's right, or what's good, or what's just--and unfortunately, it takes good people breaking bad laws to make us realize that. If it were as simple as black-and-white, then Nelson Mandela should never have been released, and Ghandi should've gone down in history as a thug. If the law were the law, there would be no Arab Spring.

When you're talking about human lives, it's much more complicated than black-and-white. People hide/cheat/lie about something as mundane as money, for Chrissakes, pretending to spend a lot more or a lot less than what they did, all in the name of preserving something so nebulous as "status". The stakes in immigration are much greater than "just" a bank account: they're families, employers, communities, colleagues. When the stakes are so high, you have to tread carefully, especially given the "shoot first questions later" mentality that pervades most bureaucracies. To lose everything because of a simple misunderstanding is, I would imagine, more gut-wrenching than to lose everything because of something that you actually did(n't) do. To ignore what's just and what's right in the interest of observing the letter of the law does not always better a people or a nation. After all, Hitler had an army of law-abiding model citizens, too.


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