Illegal immigration. Is it a crime or not?

The President has been back out on the road again, spinning heartwarming tales and pushing for his second term agenda, as you’d expect any recently reelected leader to do. I’ll confess that I had a hard time paying attention to a lot of it, what with asteroids crashing to Earth on poop filled cruise ships and all, but there was one theme which caught my attention. He’s going all in on the hot new fad of comprehensive immigration reform.

President Barack Obama told a group of Senate Democrats Wednesday that Congress must move forward with comprehensive immigration reform, or else he will propose his own legislation on the hot-button topic…

In a description of Wednesday’s meeting, the White House said Obama “reiterated the key principles he believes must be a part of any bipartisan, commonsense effort, including continuing to strengthen border security, creating an earned path to citizenship, holding employers accountable and streamlining legal immigration.”

Everyone seems to be talking about it these days, and not just Democrats. Republicans from Marco Rubio to John McCain have their own proposals, many of which involve some form of what the President is talking about. You can call it a “path to citizenship” or amnesty or Expedited Entry… whatever you like. But for some reason there are still quite a few of us who hear proposals such as these and get an uneasy feeling. For some of us, it may even be hard to quantify exactly what’s wrong. But if you harbor any such qualms, of course, you will be immediately labeled… say it with me…

A racist.

Whatever. But as I considered the question this week, I realized that there might be a better way to describe exactly why this sounds troubling. And to understand it, you really need to talk about the story of Ray Bowman and William Kirkpatrick. Those names might not be familiar unless you lived in the Pacific Northwest in the 90s, but they were something of a legend. In a career spanning more than 16 years they robbed 28 banks around the country for a total of more than $7 million. I’m not going all anti-hero worship on you here, but you’ve got to admit… in terms of raw focus and mission attention, these guys were good. They stole a LOT of money without getting caught.

But the law finally caught up with them, and in 1999 they went to trial and were sent to lengthy stretches in the Crowbar Motel. Now here’s the thing about their story… during the trial, not one person – not in the media, the public, the courts or the government – not one single person stood up to say anything remotely like the following:

You know, yeah… okay.. they stole the money. But they’ve had it for a really long time now. And their families are depending on it for retirement and the kids’ college. Some of it is invested in various places and we’d have to draw it out. Maybe, after all this time, we should just let them keep it.

Why did nobody say that? The answer is because they broke the law and they got caught. This applies for virtually any other law you could name… except for illegal immigration. As things stand now, crossing the border without the proper authorization and paperwork is a crime. Beyond that, continuing to stay here without said credentials is also a crime. If you do this, you are committing a crime each and every day that you are here. But for some reason, we seem to be reaching the point where we’re fine with treating this as more of a game of Red Rover Red Rover. Yes, it’s a crime to come over the border uninvited, but if you make it to home base, maybe we’ll just forget about it.

Now, before the inevitable, hollow argument comes flying back at me here, I’m not talking about anything resembling the statute of limitations. (Why we have a statute of limitations is a debate for another day.) Bowman and Kirkpatrick kept committing crimes all through their run. And people who are here illegally continue to break the law every single day by the simple fact of being in the country. If you want to have a discussion about a statute on illegal immigration where people can leave for seven years and have it dropped from their record… fine. We can have that debate. But it doesn’t apply to this situation.

Allow me to also answer the second, inevitable question which crops up every time we have this discussion. No, I have no idea what to do about the five million or twelve million or twenty million illegal immigrants currently breaking the law every single day in this country. I have not even the beginning of a hint as to what should be done about it. I also don’t know what to do about the 90% of robberies that go unsolved each year. But I’m pretty sure that the answer isn’t to decriminalize theft.

I’ve had some conflicting feelings about this immigration question myself, I confess. But America either is or it is not a nation of laws. If we are to change our system so that entering our nation without permission is no longer a crime – or at least not that serious of one – then lawmakers need to make that clear. But don’t tell us you’re doing it just because you can’t figure out how to stop people from breaking the law. And if keeping control of our borders and retaining management of who does or does not enter is still an important priority and a criminal matter, that should be made clear also. What we’re getting out of Washington now is static, clarifying nothing and selling a feel-good product which doesn’t seem to address any of these questions.