Amnesty as a Civil Right: Part 3

By Stanley Renshon on October 21, 2013

In 1991 Harvard Law School professor Mary Ann Glendon published an important book entitled Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse. In it, she noted Americans' modern tendency to view nearly every social controversy as a clash of rights.

Professor Glendon's observations are a useful framework within which to consider the new effort to make the legalization of illegal aliens a new civil right.

In her book's preface, she noted the modern rights discourses in the United States were different from those in other liberal democracies because of their "starkness and simplicity, its prodigality in bestowing the rights label, its legalistic character, its exaggerated absoluteness, its hyper individualism, its insularity, and its silence with respect to personal, civic, and collective responsibilities." (emphasis mine)

Indeed, she notes that there is, "A near-aphasia concerning responsibilities makes it seem legitimate to accept the benefits of living in a democratic social welfare republic without assuming the corresponding personal and civic obligations."

Further: "A rapidly expanding catalog of rights — extending to trees, animals, smokers, nonsmokers, consumers, and so on — not only multiplies the occasions for collisions, but it risks trivializing core democratic values."

Professor Glendon did not write about immigration per se, although she was very much interested in citizenship as a reflection of community. Still, her words seem directly applicable to efforts to make legalization after unlawful entry into the United States a civil right: "As various new rights are proclaimed or proposed, the catalog of individual liberties expands without much consideration of the ends to which they are oriented, their relationship to one another, to corresponding responsibilities, or to the general welfare."

Therein lies the basic fault of the illegal alien amnesty as a civil right idea. Attorney General Holder's view is that, "The way we treat our friends and neighbors who are undocumented – by creating a mechanism for them to earn citizenship and move out of the shadows – transcends the issue of immigration status. This is a matter of civil and human rights. It is about who we are as a nation. And it goes to the core of our treasured American principle of equal opportunity."

This is a tendentious analysis, but also a deeply flawed one.

In his view amnestied legalization for "our friends and neighbors" reflects "who we are as a nation," and goes to our "treasured American principle of equal opportunity."

No it doesn't.

America does have a social contract and covenant with members of its national community. It commits itself to opportunity and freedom within a context of law and individual responsibility.

Yet that covenant rests on the core status of membership and that in turn rests on the bedrock principle of mutuality. Every person has the right to ask for membership, but the national community, acting through its system of laws and regulations, has the more basic right of setting fair standards for membership.

It is within its rights to deny membership to those who would want to harm the community.

It is within its right to deny membership to those who want to take advantage of its opportunities and give little in return.

It is within its rights to set fair and appropriate rules for membership according to its circumstances and its cultural and political frameworks.

And it is absolutely within its rights to reject demands, couched in "rights talk," that it accept for automatic membership and citizenship those who have broken its rules.

Next: The Basic Fault: Why the Senate Bill Can't Be Redeemed, Part 1