Immigration Reform 2013: Eric Holder Mistakes It As a Civil Rights Issue

Speaking to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) on April 24, Attorney General Eric Holder voiced support for so-called "comprehensive immigration reform" (CIR), saying that "creating a pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in this country is absolutely essential." But in arguing for CIR, Holder wrongly described immigration reform as a civil-rights issue.

In particular, Holder said: "The way we treat our friends and neighbors who are undocumented by creating a mechanism for them to earn citizenship and to move out of the shadows transcends the issue of immigration status. This is a matter of civil and human rights. It's about who we are as a nation, and it goes to the core of our treasured American principle of equal opportunity."

MALDEF was established in 1968 to ensure that Hispanics and Latinos received equal treatment under the law, which puts it solidly within the civil rights movement, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). And the civil-rights movement made the country a better place by fighting against unfair, invidious discrimination against minorities.

But the problem with our immigration system currently isn't discrimination against minorities, whether they're immigrants from Mexico or elsewhere. The problem is that we've spent decades not enforcing laws on the books, so that millions of people are here illegally — either by crossing the border illegally or overstaying their visa — but aren't being processed according to those laws. They aren't deported, so they stay here "in the shadows,", living and working here while technically being in violation of the law. If anything, they're being treated more leniently that the law allows, not being subjected to invidious discrimination by those laws.

Holder, agreeing with many others in the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama's administration, argued in front of MALDEF that letting illegal immigrants stay here is a matter of civil rights. But how? Illegal immigrants (yes, that term is OK to use), whether from Mexico or elsewhere, have exactly the same right to emigrate to the U.S. that everyone else in the world has: They can go to the U.S. embassy in their home country and apply to come here legally. CIR wouldn't change that. Rather, what CIR would do is create a new path to legal residence that's open to immigrants who broke the law, but not to other immigrants.

Not only that, but CIR would put illegal immigrants at an advantage over legal ones, because it would immediately grant illegal immigrants the right to work here, before immigrants in other countries applying legally and hoping to do the same job can even cross the border. Contrary to going "to the back of the line," illegal immigrants under CIR would go to the front of it, at least with respect to legal employment.

Think of two Mexican citizens with identical skills and identical job aspirations, one in the U.S. illegally, and the other in Mexico applying at a U.S. consulate. If CIR passes, which one will get to hold a job in the U.S. first? The one who broke the law. How is that fair?
More to the point, how is it a civil right that we should pass a law to make it happen? Far from undoing harmful discrimination, CIR would discriminate in favor of illegal immigrants, putting them at an advantage over legal ones.

Holder spent a good portion of his speech to MALDEF talking about the importance of immigration to our nation. He's correct that we're a nation of immigrants, but the problem many people have with CIR isn't that they're opposed to immigration — it's that they're opposed to people breaking immigration and border-security laws and then asking that those laws be changed to accommodate them.
Immigration reform isn't a civil rights issue. Granted, our immigration system could use fixing. But illegal immigrants are at a disadvantage not because of discrimination, but because they broke the law.