Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's memorable phrase "Defining Deviancy Down" tartly and honestly captured the irony of the determined, but futile effort to avoid dealing with a breakdown in America's social and legal norms surrounding crime and family life. Faced with behavior that it was unwilling to confront, or perhaps lacking the means to do so, America, he wrote, had simply tried to define the problem away.
As with most such efforts at denial, whether on a personal or societal level, the risk is that the problems will simply accumulate and multiply, rather than actually disappear. And they did.
Were Moynihan alive today and writing about immigration, he would be quite perplexed. He would, I think, easily recognize the concerted effort to sanitize the concepts that describe illegal migration: "undocumented", "irregular" immigrants, "out of status", or simply not to use any term at all.
What I think might genuinely surprise him is the attempt not only to sanitize the terms used to characterize those who break American immigration laws, but the effort to turn clearly illegal behavior into officially tolerated, and even encouraged behavior.
Those two responses are of course related to each other, but they are not exactly the same. If you tolerate something, you send a signal that it is acceptable, and in the case of illegal migration it is a signal of encouragement.
For example, in California, Governor Brown recently signed legislation that allowed illegal aliens to get driver's licenses.
This is a blanket exception to the previous legal expectation that one needed to be a legal resident of the state in order to be given a driver's license. The new law signals that breaking American immigration law is no barrier to official recognition of legal standing as a state resident.
Obviously, people do not become illegal migrants to get American driver's licenses, but the fact that they can be legally obtained in eleven states, is one small way in which tolerance for breaking American immigration laws is encouraged and rewarded.
An even larger example of illegal migration tolerance moving towards encouragement came about at almost the same time, when Governor Brown signed the "Trust Act".
According to the Los Angeles Times, "Under the so-called Trust Act, immigrants in this country illegally would have to be charged with or convicted of a serious offense to be eligible for a 48-hour hold and transfer to U.S. immigration authorities for possible deportation."
When the paper refers to "serious crimes" the phrase in this case is accurate. The specific offenses listed in the bill refer to those covered in Penal Code 1192.7 (c). These crimes are not only "serious," but in many cases horrific.
The "Trust Act" then is serious about the most brutal and heinous felonies that illegal aliens commit, but of course there are "serious" crimes that do not include murder or sexual assault. It is not at all clear why the list of serious nonviolent felonies or charges and convictions of multiple misdemeanors should not be taken seriously as deportable offenses by legal authorities.
Senator Moynihan would recognize these efforts for what they are; attempts to avoid having to think seriously about just what level of crime is acceptable by people who have already come into the country illegally, who may well be eligible in the future of some kind of amnestied legalized status, and therefore will be invited to join the American national community. He would also recognize it as an effort to define away the problem of illegal immigrant crime and deportation by setting the bar as to what constitutes a crime so high, that the vast majority of illegal aliens, even those who commit other serious crimes, will get the equivalent of an immigration status pardon and amnesty.
What would I think surprise and perplex him is the view that gaining amnestied legalization in spite of having entered the country illegally, and in spite of having committed crimes short of murder and rape, is a civil right.