Category Archives: Tenth Amendment

Immigration Debate: Federal or state purview?

The Constitution in Peril
Image by Renegade98 via Flickr

Recently, the local Deseret News has seen debate on its opinion page, and carried over in the Facebook-sphere, on the immigration issue, especially as it relates to whether immigration policy is the purview of states or the federal government, and in many respects, it returns to Constitutional interpretation by the political right (though I am not clear that it falls on party lines).  Two opinions in particular have debate it, and because one (“Immigration a matter for the federal government, which hasn’t delivered,” August 8, 2010) is in direct response to the other (“Border security not federal purview,” August 3, 2010), I’ve posted them below.

It’s an interesting discussion, and I believe it reflects, in many ways, a growing disenchantment with the expanding reach of the federal government in to the lives of American citizens.  However, the views expressed of the authors are their own, and I present them only as food for thought and consideration.  I do not blame the growth of the federal government on either party alone; indeed, much of what the Obama Administration has been able to accomplish has only been possible because of what the Bush Administration did during its eight year tenure.

The first opinion below is by Connor Boyack (he is found on Twitter as @cboyack), a blogger, communications coordinator for the Utah County Campaign for Liberty, “a 20-something web designerpolitical economist, and budding philanthropist.”

In the wake of Arizona’s immigration law and “the list” of 1,300 alleged illegal immigrants, people in Utah and around the country are debating the ever-present issue of immigration at a fever pitch. For all the resulting discourse, however, it seems that nearly everybody has assumed that federal immigration law is proper.

This view is mistaken, although understandable. More than a century of precedent has led Americans to believe that the power to regulate and restrict immigration is a federal one. Time, however, does not confer authority; if an individual health care mandate is unconstitutional today, yet still implemented, the passage of 100 years does not make it right.

It is an interesting exercise to ask supporters of federal immigration law where the government derives its authority on this issue. The varying responses given are as numerous as those offered by the U.S. Supreme Court over the years. One would think that if such a power existed, we could at least agree on what text in the Constitution applies.

A common citation of constitutional authority is Congress’ power to “establish a uniform rule of naturalization,” though both a colonial-era definition of the word naturalization, as well as a litany of quotes from framers of the document in question, clarify that naturalization has only to do with the specific process that makes an alien a citizen. The stretching of naturalization to somehow encompass an individual’s travel through and residence within the United States is without constitutional support.?

Some also point to Congress’ power to repel invasions, arguing that the flood of immigrants crossing the border invade our country, use our resources, burden our social welfare programs and bring with them gang violence and drug warfare. However, this supposed invasion is no orchestrated campaign by a distinct group; Juan’s peaceful and individual migration to America cannot reasonably be classified as being part of some coordinated effort to invade America.

James Madison argued in Federalist 43, in the Virginia Ratifying Convention, and in his Report of 1800 that the power to repel invasions only was meant for protection when a state was attacked by another state, or when the country was being subjected to a coordinated military strike. While some gang activity may possibly apply here, it is patently absurd to classify all migration as a legitimate and actual invasion.

Historically, the commerce clause was used to justify federal immigration law, but this dealt mainly with slavery or state-based migration taxes, and few would try to so twist this clause as to apply to the modern migration of individuals across our borders.

The last justification often used is a vague and boundless reference to the country’s sovereignty, where it is argued that the country must “secure its borders” as a matter of “national security” and that the power to do so comes as an inherent right of being a sovereign nation. Not only are the states the sovereign entities in our federal republic, but the federal government cannot legitimately act unless it has been delegated the power to do so by the states under the U.S. Constitution.

Federal immigration laws have no constitutional authority, and unless an amendment to the Constitution is ratified by the states to delegate that power, the states should retake and affirm their power to manage immigration within their borders. Given that “illegal immigrants” have violated federal immigration laws, which exist without proper authority, the proper action for those who support and uphold the Constitution is to advocate amnesty for those whose only crime is noncompliance with these illegitimate laws.

The response to Connor Boyack’s opinion piece was published in the same publication, the Deseret News, on Sunday, August 8, 2010.  It was co-written by Ben Lusty, an attorney in private practice in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Daniel Burton (he is found on Twitter as @publiusdb), an attorney in Utah and the Chair of the Utah Young Republicans.

We recently read the “My View” by Connor Boyack (“Border security not federal purview,” Aug. 2) with great interest, and feel it necessary to respond to Mr. Boyack’s extreme views. Were we to follow his logic, we would find our country crossed and conflicted with 50 separate immigration policies, creating uncertainty and jeopardizing freedom of movement. The federal government, despite its many faults and heretofore failure to act in this arena, is best situated to secure our borders and establish uniform immigration laws. We, too, are frustrated with the federal government’s immigration policy failures, and do not object to a state’s right to enforce existing federal immigration law. However, upending the constitutional infrastructure of the nation is no solution.

Mr. Boyack’s major flaw is his narrow-minded reading of the Constitution, especially Article I, Section 8, which includes a full grant of authority to Congress to establish rules of naturalization. Mr. Boyack argues, without citing evidence, that the framers understood this grant of federal authority absurdly narrowly and meant it only to empower Congress to grant citizenship to aliens, not as power to establish comprehensive immigration law.

Hundreds of years of Supreme Court precedent refute Mr. Boyack, but he blithely dismisses the constitutional authority of the judiciary with the aphorism that a hundred years of wrong precedent is still wrong. But Mr. Boyack’s way of thinking is illogical. How can Congress logically exercise its undisputed plenary power over naturalization if it lacks the authority to admit or exclude aliens from the country in the first place? What if Congress wants to grant citizenship to an individual that the state of California refuses to admit to the nation? We doubt the Founders were so shortsighted as to create such a painfully foreseeable crisis.

Further, Mr. Boyack’s analysis ignores other important constitutional language. For example, he largely ignores the commerce clause. Congress has authority to regulate interstate and international commerce, and there is no doubt that immigration affects national commerce. Moreover, Mr. Boyack completely ignores Article II of the Constitution. Article II grants the executive branch broad power to implement foreign and defense policy. Immigration affects both, but under Mr. Boyack’s vision, the states would seize this authority from the federal government.

More tellingly, Mr. Boyack has not accounted for Article IV, which provides that a properly ratified treaty is the supreme law of the land. States cannot have paramount authority to exercise control over immigration if the federal government can likewise enact a treaty with a foreign nation affecting immigration policy.

Mr. Boyack, wearing a guise of “originalism,” simply interprets away the plain meaning and clear intent of constitutional language, attempting to substitute the words of a few founders as definitive of the collective work of the founding generation. What Mr. Boyack posits is a radical interpretation — that states (all 50 of them) have the power to set their own immigration policy.

Despite our disagreement with Mr. Boyack’s interpretation of the Constitution, we agree with the majority of the population that the federal government has not effectively addressed immigration. Most people are not sensitive to the fine distinctions between federal and state power in our Constitution, but they do care about results, which the federal government has not delivered. We suspect that many advocates for enhancing the power of states at the expense of the federal government are more concerned with the failure of federal policy generally than with Constitutional jurisprudence.

The federal government is institutionally better situated than the states to deal with immigration. The question that Mr. Boyack fails to answer is whether we want 50 immigration policies. Therefore, based on reasons of pragmatism, law, and politics — the same reasons that the Founders came together at Philadelphia to “form a more perfect union,” we refute Mr. Boyack’s myopic view of state authority. Immigration policy is, by and in large, the purview of the federal government. What we do to bring about the changes in the federal government to resolve our immigration policy problems is another discussion altogether.

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