On Yer Bike!

‘The US has been hoist on the petard of its own propaganda, its own vanity about itself being a “nation of immigrants”’

This summer, in New York’s Riverside Park, I was issued a $50 summons for cycling on a footpath. I objected: “But I’ve been cycling down this hill for 30 years. Since when has the rule changed?” The parks policeman claimed: “It’s been on the books forever.” He failed to ameliorate my indignation. The rule had also been unenforced forever. I shelled out the 50 bucks, but in a spirit of contempt. Next time I hit that same hill out of view of some jobsworth in uniform, I’ll gleefully bike it.

Petty cycling story begets larger political truth: laws long unenforced effectively don’t exist. Moreover, abruptly applying regulations dormant for decades gives rise to outrage. Once established custom has run roughshod over statute long enough, violations convert to rights. 

So let’s use a wider-angle lens. Domestically and internationally, the Hispanic response to Arizona’s 2010 state immigration law, which studiously duplicates US federal immigration law, was predictable: outrage. That’s because the feds don’t enforce it. About a million illegal immigrants enter the US every year, and estimates of such residents range from 12 to 20 million, three-quarters of them Hispanic. As this southerly inflow continues and volumes of illegal aliens reside undisturbed, US immigration statutes might as well have been printed in disappearing ink. 

As I write this, Arizona’s “SB-1070” has been temporarily defanged in court, an early indication that by the time this column sees print the law may have been struck down as a usurpation of federal powers. Yet what’s been so famously controversial? The expectation that in the prosecution of other laws local and state police investigate a suspect’s immigration status if they have reasonable suspicion that he or she is “undocumented”. Although Mexico’s president led the charge in denouncing the Arizona law as offensive, his country’s own laws invest every level of law enforcement with exactly this same authority. Indeed, Mexican immigration laws are far more draconian than those Arizona would install; an illegal immigrant in Mexico who takes a job faces up to six years in prison and deportation. Also duplicating SB-1070, Mexican law requires all foreign-born residents to carry papers demonstrating their legal status; in Mexico, failure to produce such papers on demand results in fines, jail, deportation, or a combination of all three, and returning deportees can be jailed for ten years. Surprisingly, Mexico deports more illegal immigrants annually than the US.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking. Yet this double standard has become internationally par for the course. Most countries regard it as their right to control their own immigration. Citizens of these same countries also regard it as their right to emigrate to the US — the only nation in the world broadly considered open season for the rest of the planet. Yes, any day now I expect Amnesty International to declare emigration to the US a “human right”. A large, left-wing contingent of the American electorate also considers any enforcement of US immigration law an outrage, and occasional federal immigration raids on workplaces are reported in the New York Times with the same indignation the editors lavish on paedophile priests. 

The US has been hoist on the petard of its own propaganda, its own vanity about itself as a “nation of immigrants”, a “melting pot” that smelts the tired and poor into newly-minted American citizens. It’s a convenient mythology that the rest of the world has embraced with a vengeance, the downside of “American exceptionalism” — only in this case the US isn’t excepted from vexatious institutions like the International Criminal Court, but from being morally justified in having any immigration restrictions at all.

It’s all America’s fault. Federal enforcement of laws technically on the books has been so lax that custom has rewritten them. Contemporary Mexicans and Central Americans grow up with the understanding that to head to El Norte is simply what people do — since that’s what their cousins did, and their uncles, and their next-door neighbours. Whatever folks have got away with for ever ceases to seem like getting away with anything, and becomes the least one can expect, one’s birthright, one’s due.

The seemingly capricious application of a long neglected statute in my case resulted only in a lone cyclist fuming over her handlebars. But when up to 20 million residents have been, if you will, cycling the park footpath for decades and suddenly we want to issue them a summons, the cumulative wrath and sense of umbrage could approach civil war. A word to the wise at the UK Border Agency: fail to enforce immigration laws at your peril. Custom has power.

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