What is our responsibility for the illegal population?

If the rhetoric of the Trump candidacy and presidency has maligned huge categories of immigrants and sometimes even entire nationalities, it has done so within the context of a near-total lack of conservative interest in the question, What is our own responsibility for the undocumented population? The tacit assumption seems to be that we do not owe any undocumented immigrants any acknowledgment or protection as members of our community. This would be defensible if we could look at them and say, “Well, it’s all your fault.” But we can’t say that honestly, and acknowledging the reasons we can’t does not amount to conceding that immigration policy should in general be guided primarily by humanitarian concerns.

It will be objected that the kind of framework I propose is unfair to legal immigrants, current or prospective, who were or are willing to “wait their turn.” So it is. But we often have to choose the least of the evils, and I would in this case give up abstract fairness to avoid the alternative of inflicting further grave concrete harm. We can also mitigate the unfairness by (a) taking a welcoming attitude toward prospective legal immigrants while (b) ceasing to lay the foundations of future unfair-in-the-abstract compromises.

It might also be objected that I do not care enough about citizens who have been adversely affected by illegal immigration, for example as victims of crime or downward wage pressure. I have said nothing against deporting seriously criminal aliens; I also have no reason to think that the undocumented population is unusually seriously criminal. As for the working class, illegal (and unskilled) immigration is only one source of its woes, and hardly the most important, but it is a source with a human face and therefore provides a suitable object of hatred. I am for a generous safety net; I am for educational assistance; I am for giving whatever aid to working-class communities will be effective without creating further harm. But if anyone’s hope, like that of Trump’s guy, is to let the deportation orders come down like an eight-digit number of tons of bricks, then that person and I cannot be allies.