Defining Immigration Enforcement Down

By Stanley Renshon on October 17, 2013

In 1993, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Harvard Professor and then U.S. Senator (D-NY), published a seminal and prescient article in the winter issue of the American Scholar entitled "Defining Deviancy Down".

Moynihan's thesis was that, "over the past generation ... the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can 'afford to recognize' and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the 'normal' level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard."

Moynihan distinguished three paths that led to defining deviancy downward: altruistic, opportunistic, and normalizing. The first was a by-product of good intentions, for which he cited the now-failed experiment in deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill. The second was a byproduct of social trends, like out-of-wedlock births that were then characterized as alternative lifestyle choices, a phrasing that eludes the social and personal consequences of those decisions.

As Moynihan wrote of such opportunism, "What is going on here is simply that a large increase in what once was seen as deviancy has provided opportunity to a wide spectrum of interest groups that benefit from re-defining the problem as essentially normal and doing little to reduce it."

However, it is the third, normalizing, that most resembles the current efforts to redefine illegal migration, so that it no longer represents a legal transgression that ought, and is legally required, to be contained and sanctioned.

That effort has reached into the highest levels of the White House, although it is not confined there. For example Cecilia Munoz, now the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, which coordinates the national domestic policy-making process, has compared the illegal alien problem to that of jaywalking. She told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute that "If you were running the police department of any urban area in this country, you would spend more resources going after serious criminals than after jaywalkers. DHS (the Department of Homeland Security) is doing the immigration equivalent of the same thing".

President Obama himself has characterized one potentially deportable offense, driving while under the influence (DUI), as a "minor offense". In speaking to a group of Hispanic reporters, he said, "One of the things that [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] has done is to provide more direction to its agents out on the field, in terms of what are the priorities; how are we focusing on the most serious criminals. That does not mean that that has all embedded itself at the operational level. So there may be still situations where there are resources being used, in terms of deporting somebody who had a DUI or had some other minor traffic violation. But overall, the direction that's being moved in is to say, look, you should prioritize." (emphasis added)

Driving under the influence a minor traffic violation? Having eleven to twelve million illegal migrants in the country, the equivalent of jaywalking?

Moynihan would recognize these, and similar, efforts for what they are, efforts to "help us to get used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us."

What he would not have recognized, nor anticipated, is the effort to attach a moral and political stigma to the ordinary enforcement of our immigration laws.

Next: Making Immigration Enforcement a Crime: Amnesty as a Civil Right