Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Vermont is an enclave of civilization; our doors are open to the world.

Some thoughts for the long holiday season: Hurricane Irene reminded us that we are all in this together. Governments--federal, state, and local--businesses and other private associations worked together and well, here in Vermont, responding to floods caused by the storm. We are still digging out (I say "we" but my family was not affected), and many losses were irreparable; but within the limits of our means Vermont is recovering well.

Our civilization is succeeding in other ways. Vermont is a port of entry, and we are still a rural state. We rely on farm workers who move with the seasons. Some highly excited people here and across the river in New Hampshire have been demanding that all "illegal aliens" be rounded up and deported, though. Ranters have been stirred up by a recent incident: state troopers stopped a car and turned over a couple of its occupants to the Border Patrol. There was no evidence that Vermont law had been violated, and Governor Peter Shumlin quite properly said that the officers might have looked the other way. Attorney General William Sorrell since has added a few words to state non-discrimination policy, ratifying the Governor's position. State and local police officers are not to target people solely because of suspicion they are foreign born. This meshes with federal policy: aliens already living in the United States are to be deported only if they have committed serious crimes. Entering the United States without permission is only a misdemeanor, in most cases, and just being present in the United States without authorization is not a crime at all.

Vermont's policy, like the response to Hurricane Irene, nicely illustrates how our constitutional system is supposed to work. The federal government has the duty to conduct foreign relations, and to control our national borders. State governments have a different part to play. The Constitution says that no state may deprive any person in its jurisdiction of the equal protection of the laws. State laws targeting the foreign-born therefore are being struck down by federal courts, in whole or in part, because they infringe on federal prerogatives. and discriminate in ways that are forbidden to the states. State and local governments have all the people in their keeping, citizens and non-citizens alike.

We are a nation of immigrants, and our Constitution envisages a harmony of disparate peoples. The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee to every person in the United States the equal protection of the laws. We should stop talking about "illegal aliens" as if they were a collection of Martian body-snatchers. The first "Alien Enemies Act" was passed in 1798 to protect us from "wild Irish" and French immigrants; James Madison condemned it as unconstitutional, and Thomas Jefferson said we ought to be talking about "alien friends" on whom our civilization and our economy depend, rather than "alien enemies." Right you were, Tom. And that's the Vermont way, I think.