THE BLOG

Immigration Opponents: Ignore Them (Even If They Scream a Lot)

08/07/2013 07:02 pm ET | Updated Oct 07, 2013

In any democracy, public officials and the law itself must take special care to protect the rights of minority groups. In many cases, this makes sense. But in the case of the recent debate over immigration, it doesn't. Unlike the other issues where it makes sense to sustain a "minority veto," more immigration doesn't do any individual harm or deprive anyone of rights. As such, public officials can and should ignore loud immigration opponents with a clear conscience.

The facts about immigration reform are pretty simple: an overwhelming majority of Americans, 64 percent overall and sizeable majorities of both Democrats and Republicans, want to see compressive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for many currently undocumented residents. (Other measures, including more boarder security have similarly strong public support.) Nonetheless some Americans are currently making lots of noise about wanting to avoid extending citizenship anyone currently living here illegally.

In many cases, listening to a minority group can be both good policy and good politics. Given America's sorry legacy of racial bigotry, for example, its necessary, wise and vastly popular to have laws that forbid racial discrimination in hiring. Even though a many of Americans, if polled, would likewise support efforts to outlaw unconventional religions (paganism, Satan worship) almost no political leader would ever suggest doing so. In other cases, the issues can be a lot thornier. For example, public opinion almost certainly supports tighter gun ownership restrictions than now exist but because gun owners are more passionate and organized than those who want to take away firearms, gun-grabbers have generally lost legislative battles in recent years. (I'm glad about this myself.)

Whatever the merits of these minority groups' positions, the laws and policies intended to protect them have one thing in common: They prevent discrete harm. Specific, identifiable people are harmed when they're denied jobs because of skin color, not allowed to worship as they please, and have their guns taken away by the government. As such, a liberal democracy that attempts to temper pure majority rule by taking special care whenever a policy threatens to do harm the rights or benefits of someone in particular. Of course, paying extra attention to the voice of a minority group doesn't mean that some sort of unconditional "minority veto" ought to exist. Sometimes, harmful actions that disadvantage certain groups can be justified. Since teenagers get into far more accidents than older drivers, it's perfectly fair, for example, for to allow auto insurers to charge them more than 40-year-olds for insurance. Nonetheless, even in this case, an organized group of teenagers trying to prove they were being treated unfairly would still deserve a hearing.

But immigration is different. Although a given immigrant obviously might commit a crime that damages a specific person, the practice of immigration in the abstract can't possibly harm anybody. Having another person more or less in the country just doesn't make a difference to anyone in particular any more than an extra birth. Even if immigration, on balance, did social harm (and the evidence suggests it doesn't), increasing the rate of immigration wouldn't remove rights from anybody already here. As such, there's no "right" that the government could protect from being taken away.

This doesn't, of course, mean that every proposed immigration reform should happen or even that immigration reform opponents are necessarily wrong about all issues they raise. But it does mean that the will of the majority deserves a very, very significant consideration in the debate over immigration.