A majority of Americans want reform of US immigration policy. House Speaker John Boehner said in September that immigration reform would be good for the economy. President Obama’s plan to change US policy is arguably the will of the people and arguably good for the country. As soon as the president announced his plan, some declared he was doing too little and others that he was doing too much. But there is a very different argument being made that worried me most.
Political cartoonist Gary Varvel (Indianapolis Star and Creator’s Syndicate) depicts President Obama driving over the Constitution: disrespecting and even harming it. Varvel isn’t very good at his job, and here he fails to show the reader what Obama has done to harm the Constitution. We have to infer from tha timing that he refers to Obama’s November 20, 2014 executive action on immigration.
Rick Mekee of the Augusta Chronicle is clearer about the issue with his cartoon. Mekee shows Obama laying down the Constitution across a gap in the US border fence, inviting people to step on the Constitutional “welcome mat.”
Both cartoons stress the dignity of the Constitution over the details of the immigration question. Neither cartoonist is a Constitutional authority. But each knows his own values and priorities. Neither implies in his comic that Obama’s action is bad in itself – but bad because something something the Constitution.
They imply that the dignity of the Constitution is an important goal – even that it is more important that the immigration question. Are they right? What matters most when the will of the people conflicts with Constitutional considerations? When the good of the country requires action that can’t or just won’t happen under the Constitution, must the good of the country yield?
I want to insist on something conservative. I want to assert that the Constitution is the foundational document of the US government and society. Whatever the United States is, the Constitution makes it so. The strongest supporters of the Constitution agree with that. But they often fail to take the next step and recognize that whatever failings we have as a nation are Constitutional failures. The defects in our political process are Constitutional defects. The flaws in our collective national character are flaws the Constitution allows.
If my cows jump the fence and get into your cornfield, you’ll call me and demand two things. You’ll demand that I get the cows back onto my property and you’ll also insist I fix the fence. If I say the fence is OK as it is, you can quite reasonably insist that it isn’t. The purpose of fences is to contain cows. The fact the cows escaped proves the fence isn’t good enough.
The purpose of the Constitution is to provide good government enabling citizens to be pursue happiness. (I don’t say the purpose of the Constitution is to guarantee happiness for all. Its purpose is to give good government, which should be measured by the mood of citizens.) If the government isn’t good (as America’s isn’t), or the people are not happy (as Americans aren’t), the Constitution isn’t doing what it’s supposed to. It isn’t helpful to say the Constitution is fine if only the people would behave. If cows didn’t wander into cornfields every chance they get, fences wouldn’t be necessary.
A major theme of this blog will be that great changes to the national character and governing compact are needed. Good government and happy citizens are important. I’m not hostile to the Constitution. The changes I think are needed would retain much of the old language and nearly all of the original principles and values. But the existing document mustn’t stand in the way of good government, a thriving society, or happy people. We mustn’t allow foggy thinkers to force a choice between the current imperfect implementation of the Constitution and the kind of polity and society we want and are capable of implementing.
On the subject of immigration, I agree with most Americans that US policy needs to be fixed and the illegal status of millions of people needs to get normalized. A few of the illegal immigrants ought to be expelled from the country (as the new Obama policy allows). Most of them are decent people who just want to work and support their family.
As both President Obama and Speaker John Boehner have said recently, America is a nation of immigrants. Many Americans have got an interesting and inspiring immigrant story to tell. But I have one thing they haven’t got: a heroic ballad about my first ancestor. Folk musician Marji Hazen performs the Ballad of Adam Zehner at the link Or if you want to do the song yourself, here’s the lyrics and music.
My ancestor came to American as something very like an illegal alien. He spent the first three years here as an indentured servant, and I’m sure the neighbors felt he was driving down their wage rate. But he fought in the American Revolution, raised a big family and by the end of his life was counted a good American. For this reason, I incline to be soft-hearted and sympathetic toward later immigrants. Their reason for leaving home is similar to my ancestor Adam’s reason for leaving Germany. Their status here in the US is at present about as nebulous as his status was. And for the most part, I think they make good workmen and good neighbors, just as Adam Zehner did.