On December 23, 2019 Tali Farhadian Weinstein—General Counsel of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office—wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times titled “An Immigrant’s Gift on Christmas Eve.” In it, she tells her family’s story of immigration to the United States from Iran during the 1979 revolution.[i] The “gift” she references in the title is one of leniency, given to her and her family by an I.N.S. officer when they landed in America holding suspect tourist visas. According to Tali, they were clearly not tourists, but they were clearly struggling.
Since President Trump took office in January 2017, immigration laws and procedures have been strictly enforced and interpreted. As a result, it isn’t only the mass migrations of peoples from Central America that are being affected; highly skilled and educated workers are also being denied at record numbers.[ii] Currently, there is a tendency to enforce certain articles of policies such as the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) to its maximum. In supporting maximalist enforcement of immigration law, we lose track of the “sprit” of law enforcement inherent in a democracy.
If law enforcement at each level of government prosecuted individuals for every felony, misdemeanor, or infraction they committed, then many among us would be in jail within our lifetime. For example, in many cities and towns, violations of local laws regarding noise violations or lawn care could technically land the culprit in jail. In Michigan, a 1931 statute declares that adultery[iii] is a felony punishable by up to four years in prison and a fine of $5,000.[iv] However, this law is obviously almost never enforced. Every day many Americans break laws they are aware and unaware of. Even if they were all caught, most of them wouldn’t be charged by the law enforcement officer because the officer practiced common sense discretion.
Law, in a democracy, is supposed to appeal to a higher moral authority. The agent given the duty to carry out laws hauls that authority or “spirit” of the law on their shoulders. That is why prosecutors are expected to exercise reasonable discretion before preparing charges. On Dec. 24, 1979, the I.N.S. officer that inspected Tali and her family made their decision to allow the struggling Iranians into the country in accordance with their own sense of moral judgement. Losing track of this higher spiritual-like authority is a dangerous slip to blind authoritarian enforcement.
What has changed so drastically in the past few years is the top-down encouragement of officers to carry out the law to its maximum. Unfortunately, this has enabled hardline supporters of “sealed” borders within law enforcement agencies to execute arrests, harass, and make life generally difficult for many immigrants.[v] According to such logic, even if an undocumented immigrant has never committed a crime while in the United States they are considered morally corrupt criminals due simply to their action of entering the country without the proper papers, without regards to the circumstances that led them to take such action. If we applied this same logic to traffic violators, disturbers of the peace, or adulterers in Michigan, then our jails and prisons would be much fuller and faith in the justice of our legal system would be adversely altered within many communities.
- Weinstein, Tali Farhadian. “An Immigrant’s Christmas Eve.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Dec. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/12/23/opinion/immigrant-christmas-eve.html.
- Rangarajan, Sinduja. “Trump Has Built a Wall of Bureaucracy to Keep out the High-Skilled Immigrants He Says He Wants.” Mother Jones, 3 Dec. 2019, www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/12/trump-h1b-visa-immigration-restrictions/.
- The Michigan Penal Code Act 328, Section 750.29 Adultery; definition.
- The Michigan Penal Code Act 328, Section 750.30 Adultery; punishment.
- Foer, Story by Franklin. “How Trump Radicalized ICE.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 17 Aug. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/09/trump-ice/565772/.