I get asked a question we all often do in our lives: “what do you do?” Upon responding that I am a criminologist, I then have an experience which probably every school teacher (at least in the US) has had in the past 20 years: people decide they wish to identify a problem and then lecture me at length about its solutions.
Mind you, I am not trying to beat up on folks. I do not believe that they are “stupid,” just passionately misinformed. The things that folks tell me stem from the images they have been exposed to and accept. Often, they are unaware of contradictory images or are so far invested in what they believe to be true and have held those beliefs for such a long time that challenging those ideas is stressful. Their reality is one based upon common sense. However, folks often fail to accept that their sense is not at all “common.”
Real change (i.e. not Obama’s hope and change) is hard to execute and accept. Take for example the U.S. civil rights movement. It took over, what, seven generations of abolitionism and civil rights activism to get to the point that we are today? What that means is that most people fail to interrogate the very premise of what they believe to be true because it is easier not to.
While it might be good for the blood pressure, this tack is not good for society or democracy. The resulting deficiency is very difficult to overcome. Yet, given that in a democratic system, each person should have the right to express their views via the vote – though in practice this does not happen – it is important to consider at least some of these views since they may well – and often do – permeate the public consciousness.
So let’s get to it. The first conversation I wish to allude to was a short tour-de-force that I had with a white Welsh cab driver on my way to the train station as I was leaving Cardiff. The ride was about 15 minutes and he asked me what I do. What possessed me to tell him I am a criminologist I don’t know. I explained to him that I study unauthorized immigration. My charming cab driver asked what the hell that meant. I explained to him that he might refer to them as “illegal immigrants.” That caused him to feel an immense sense of consternation, for which I am sorry. He could not understand what was so difficult about the issue. The answer was common sense.
“Everything you need to know is in their name: they're illegal,” he told me. “Just round ‘em up and send ‘em back.”
It is an interesting point my cabbie made: surely if someone is illegal, we simply send them back. That proposition is a complicated one. Many questions should be asked of it. A few to get the discussion started include:
· Why have people taken the risk to migrate without papers?
· What potential harms do such people pose?
· How significant are those harms
· What costs does the economy endure as a result of their presence?
· What benefits does the economy enjoy?
· What are the social, economic, and security costs of enforcing the laws?
Does doing illegal things make you a criminal?
I realize that I am glossing over the idea that someone can be deemed to be illegal. In law, to my knowledge, a human being cannot be “illegal.” A human being may commit an act which is illegal and therefore has a consequence. When people are convicted of an offense they are then sometimes labeled as criminals.
But committing an illegal act does not necessarily make you a “criminal.” Or does it? If it does, I am, in fact, a criminal. I have done all kinds of illegal stuff in my lifetime. I have double parked, sped, made an illegal right on red, made an illegal left on red, rolled through stop signs, parked against traffic, and parked without paying the meter, just to name a few of the more juicy offenses.
You might be thinking “HOLY CRAP. THAT IS ONE CRAZY ASS FOOL. LOCK HIM UP. HE IS A MENACE TO SOCIETY! HE NEEDS TO GO TO JAIL.” But it is unlikely. You might as well be thinking “I do that all the time, too.”
The example of breaking traffic laws illustrates a point that most of us well know – but perhaps fail to reflect on – is that many things which are illegal have very weak consequences and do not result in the label of criminal. While it might be appropriate to revoke the license of someone with a bad driving record, we in society tend not to consider those with revoked driver’s licenses as criminals, nor should we.
Moreover, many of us bend the laws to suit our purposes from time to time. It is likely that every driver has at one point broken the driving laws, perhaps even greatly endangering the lives of other drivers. In 2011, there were approximately 30,000 car related fatalities. Car fatalities are the second leading cause of injury death in the US (trailing only suicide), so poor driving is not harmless. Yet we do not clamor for more traffic enforcement. Is bending the rules OK just because everyone does it? No, probably not. But given that most of us do bend the rules, we are quite hypocritical by expecting everyone else to somehow obey them.
The point made here is simple: just because someone has done an illegal action does not necessarily make them a criminal. The question of who we label as criminals is a big one, and is subject to labeling theory which I shall not get into now. What I would argue is that unauthorized immigrants are no more a criminal than someone who speeds on the highway. You may well not agree with me, but the question of who is worthy of the label of criminal is one that I beg you to consider.
How should people who do illegal things be reprimanded?
Despite all of this reasoned and more or less rational consideration, a lot of people share my cabbie’s view: deport all the unauthorized immigrants, er, I mean illegals, as quickly as possible. There are so many questions to ask though. Why? What does that achieve? Is that effective in deterring the unwanted behavior? Is it just? We do not have time to more than pose these questions today, but these questions are central to the penal culture of the US where we incarcerate an increasing number of people at great social and economic costs and in spite of a decreasing crime rate. Perhaps a timely question, given the current government shutdown, is why are we spending so much on enforcement for such a little payoff to society? The question (and even its premise) is one that I leave one that I leave to you to consider. The answer, you may well find, is not common sense.