High on the list of celebrities was Al Capone. The Chicago mobster who grew rich on imported booze and over the dead bodies of brash rivals epitomized the lack of respect into which the law had fallen. Ordinary Americans, whose thirst turned them into Scarface’s dedicated customers, were only too happy to applaud his bloodstained exploits.
Prohibition encouraged people to violate the law. In denying them a much desired product, it induced them to condone criminal activity. Are we today witnessing a revival of this attitude? Have disputes over immigration persuaded millions of people that the law does not matter?
Democrats act that way. They do not even want to call illegal aliens “illegal.” They prefer to label them “undocumented immigrants.” That would be like referring to big Al as “an undocumented liquor salesman.”
Liberals, in the name of humanitarianism, argue against closing our southern border. They tell us that the children crossing the Rio Grande are escaping from untold horrors in their homelands and therefore it is up to us to save them. Sending them back would be a violation of their human rights.
No doubt the attraction of being granted amnesty by a president who is hoping to attract millions of Hispanic voters is potent. Just as potent as alcohol was to the flappers. But does that mean we should solve this problem the same way we handled Prohibition?
Prohibition was, of course, repealed. It was removed from the law books and in the process legitimated strong drink. Should we therefore open the borders and allow all comers unrestricted entrance? Were we to do so, today’s illegals would thus cease being illegal.
Some liberals propose exactly this. They insist that human decency requires us to rescue any self-proclaimed refugee who asks our help. No matter what their circumstances or land of origin, simple morality demands that we do no less.
Now the conservative columnist George Will has gone on record as recommending something similar. He tells us that there are so relatively few undocumented children that the nation can easily absorb them. According to him, all this would require is that each of the country’s thousands of counties accept a mere 20.
Can he be serious? Doesn’t he realize that these migrants will not wind up spread evenly across the states? They will be concentrated in a few places — probably several disorganized inner cities.
Why does that matter? It matters because this would interfere with their assimilation. Immigrants have been good for the U.S., but only because they subsequently became Americanized. They fit in and contributed to our welfare once they adopted our democratic customs. Only then could their cultures enhance our own.
High concentrations interfere with this transition. Individuals who are fleeing the violence and corruption of their native lands bring the attitudes that fostered this wantonness with them. Unaccustomed to freedom, they have not learned how to support the institutions that protect our freedoms.
This is not their fault — but it is a danger to our way of life. The irony is that if we seek to salvage too many of the downtrodden, they very qualities that enable us to do so are apt to be undermined. So would our economy and the conditions of our daily existence.
To repeat, immigration is good. Yet it must be legal immigration. We need to welcome the oppressed, but only in numbers we can assimilate. It takes time and resources to convert illiterate peasants into upstanding Americans. We must allow ourselves, and them, this leeway.
Let us therefore not go back to the days of Tommy guns and bathtub gin! Who would this help?
Melvyn L. Fein Ph.D. is professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University.